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At P.D. day, teachers discuss challenges of their profession

Across the city yesterday, high school teachers hunkered down for a day of extra training. Some sat in on sessions at their schools, while others scattered across the city for sessions held in the offices of educational consultants.

I stopped by the Midtown offices of Math for America, a fellowship program for math and science teachers, and saw teachers working on student work to better understand why they thought the way they did. Here’s what some said about some of the topics dominating the policy agenda these days (interviews edited for clarity and brevity):

Bill Lamonte, Millennium High School
Subject: Science
Years: 10 (eight in New York City)

How long will you be a teacher for?

I may be a different case because I know I’ll be teaching until I die. But it is hard to see colleagues that start out putting in that time and then get frustrated and end up leaving.

I am challenged professionally, but some people don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy of the system. The DOE is a tough place. It’s very top-down. It’s hard. But if you have a supportive administration and you’re in a school that has ideals that you believe in, it’s easier to stay because you feel you can work with people and that you can actually make a difference.

Would you ever consider a school leadership position?

I know I’ll be teaching, but I steer clear of the administration path just because I see what happens to teachers when they become administrators. They take on another personality, in a way. Again, it’s very top-down, so they have to meet certain requirements themselves. In order to do that you have to put a lot of pressure on your teachers. When you have to have a checklist – are they doing this, this, and this? – I can see how it can become a struggle to balance.

Although I do find that a lot of schools struggle with having good administrators. There are a lot of weak principals out there. I’ve seen it first hand, especially at my old school in the Bronx. Luckily now I do feel that the administration is batter and that does make a huge difference. To feel supported in a school is really what’s going to keep a teacher there.

Do you think financial incentives are a good way to improve instruction?

I think it’s dangerous because it starts to put teachers against each other. We’re supposed to be helping each other grow as a community. I do see the value of incentives, but it’s also like, ‘okay kids, I’ll give you a treat if you pass this test.’ It’s not really authentic.

At the same time, there’s a lot of fat to be trimmed, too. There’s a lot of teachers who don’t do what they’re supposed to and should be targeted, but the union does protect them. But the incentive factor, it’s tough. I see the pros and cons on both sides, but I don’t think it’s going to fix the problem. I don’t think throwing money at it is going to fix it. I think smaller class sizes is important and I think just getting a whole school community on board is important. I think that’s how KIPP schools do pretty well, simply because every body is so invested in it. But again, the burnout there is probably pretty high.

Pete Diamantis, Urban Assembly for Design and Construction (and MfA fellow)
Subject: Math/Algebra.
Year: Six

Why do you think there is high attrition in your profession?

I definitely feel there’s something to be said about the public perception of the profession – the esteem with which we view the profession and the people who do the job. And closely related to that is what I’ve come to realize, more and more, is the general disparity between what people think it takes to be a good teacher and what it actually takes to be a good teacher. So you have this public opinion that teaching should be a relatively easy task, when in fact we should be viewing it as something as hard as medicine or economics.

The MfA program gives its teachers up to $15,000 more than the average NYC teacher. Is that why you’re still in the profession?

No. I think a big component (for people staying in the profession) would be the role that Math for America is playing for someone like me; an outside source that’s providing cutting edge professional development that helps me to be in this constant state of reflection of what I’m doing, how effective it is and how much better I can get.

For me, being part of Math for America is less about the compensation that comes with it as it is about the support that I feel from the organization. And I can speak from a pretty unique standpoint in that I’ve been around for five years and I’ve seen the evolution of Math for America as a program that is supporting public school teachers and the responsiveness to our feedback.

Stephen Jackson, PS/MS 278
Subject: Science
Years: 18 (eight in NYC)

How long will you be a teacher for?

Always. I taught in another country for over ten years, so when I came here, I think my love for teaching kept me in there. I love working with kids, to see them them grow. You know, the whole process. I think that helps bring out my creativity also in terms of different challenges working with different groups of kids, the gifted kid, the ones who are struggling, the ones in the middle.

Why do teachers deserve to be paid more?

On any given day you’re not just a facilitator for learning, but you also need to deal with their social needs, their sociological needs. There’s so many different things you have to deal with. It’s not just presenting the information.

Should teachers be paid more based on teacher evaluations?

I’m not sure where my position is. I think if you’re going to think about performance, there are some schools that get some very good kids. In these areas you have excellent parental support, you have a lot of social support. These kids are going to do extremely well even when they get out of the classroom.

There are also some very challenging schools where there are a lot of factors outside the classroom. I know there are excellent teachers who really work hard in these schools with some of the basic skills that are lacking, but you really can see growth over a period of time with these kids.

I think if we’re going to be fair across the board, if teachers are working in certain schools where they get all the good quality kids so to speak – the level threes, level fours – that school is always going to do well. What about teachers who are working at the bottom who chose to stay in those areas to really help those kids? They may not necessarily be reflected in a score in a short period of time, but in the long term they can turn things around.

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