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Churn in city's teaching corps includes larger crop of Fellows

Hours before nearly 3,000 teachers at dozens of schools got official word that they would need to look for new positions, Chancellor Dennis Walcott greeted 900 fresh recruits to the city’s teaching corps.

The new teachers were recruited and selected by the NYC Teaching Fellows program, which has trained new teachers for shortage areas such as special education and math since 2000. Fellows get training over the summer, then are sent off into high-needs schools in the fall while they work toward a master’s degree in education.

At its peak, the program brought in thousands of new teachers each year. But under tight budget conditions and hiring restrictions, it shrank dramatically in the last few years. This year’s crop of 900 newbies is twice as many as the program hired in 2011, and 200 more than the Department of Education forecast this spring.

The new fellows packed into a Midtown auditorium for a ceremony that welcomed them into the city’s public school system on Monday.

“You have the opportunity to make sure your students are able to grow and thrive in today’s society,” Walcott told the fellows as he praised them for earning a spot in the competitive program, which accepted just 12 percent of applicants this year. “That’s what we want you to do to make that lasting impact.”

But with only a few months to secure a classroom position, the chancellor’s words of encouragement didn’t ease the anxiety that many recruits expressed. Since 2009, fellows who don’t land a permanent position by the middle of the fall semester are tossed from the program — and its payroll.

“I am very nervous,” said Jennifer Allen, who has already started to search for a position. “Every day, whenever I have down time, I schedule at least an hour or so to put out resumes and talk to principals to try to get myself out there.”

And the fellows have an especially large crowd of competitors this year: The welcome ceremony coincided with the announcement that almost 3,000 experienced teachers at the city’s 24 “turnaround” schools are not guaranteed their jobs this fall. Many are applying to keep their positions, but others are striking out on the open market to look for open jobs elsewhere in the system. They will join the fellows, other new teachers, and other experienced teachers looking for a change in competing for open spots.

Meanwhile, fellows can pursue jobs at the turnaround schools, or anywhere else in the system. Half of the new recruits are being trained as special education teachers, so they are unlikely to be subject to hiring restrictions that remain in place for many subject areas.

The good odds had most new fellows confident about finding a position come September.

“I’m an adult and I’ve never not had a job in the last seven years,” said Liz Geisewite, who previously worked in the nonprofit sector. “They’re very reassuring that we’ll get placed eventually.”

Geisewite said she became interested in teaching special education last year when she worked for a GED program.

“Most of the students that I worked with had been special education students at some point and never finished school,” she said. “I thought, what if I could be with them one step before, so they didn’t have to make the choice of going back to school later in life.”

Another recruit, 47-year-old Greg Kilpatrick, made the switch from being an architect.

“I taught [English as a second language] many years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand so I always loved it, and I always wanted to continue to be a teacher,” said Kilpatrick. “It’s a great opportunity. I hope to get a lot of great skills and practical knowledge about teaching that I can take into the classroom.”

About half of this year’s cohort is fresh out of college and under 24 years old, but 6 percent of the new recruits — 54 people — are over 40 years old.

Current teachers who came to the system through the fellows program joined Walcott in trying to rev up their new colleagues, with one teacher bringing 10 students from her Bronx school for students with special needs to dance to Beyonce’s “Run the World.”

“How many people do you know can say they get paid to do what they love?” asked Malik Ketcham, a Bronx teacher who was a fellow in 2008. “The key to your success in the classroom, fellows, is going to be the realization that you’re not only a teacher. To be successful in the classroom, you have to be a counselor, an advisor, and you have to be an entertainer.”

One role teachers should not take is friend, warned Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union the new fellows will join when they land classroom positions.

“I can’t thank you enough for saying that ‘I want to be a teacher, I want to make a difference in children’s lives,’” Mulgrew said. But he cautioned the fellows to avoid the troubles that several teachers found themselves in this year because of inappropriate interactions with students.

“As a new teacher, it’s more important to help them, not to be their friend,” he added.

Allen said she decided to get her teaching certification after working as an assistant at P.S. 234 for five years, precisely because she wanted to make a difference for children.

“But I felt like as a paraprofessional, I didn’t have an impact as much as I could as being a teacher,” she said.

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