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'Here I Was, A New Teacher'

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Last year, Beth J. Fuqua left her private-sector job to prepare for a career in education. "I always had it in mind that I wanted to be a teacher,'' she said. "It just took a while before I could actually afford to do it.''

Ms. Fuqua, who is 27, enrolled in a master's degree program in elementary education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She completed her course requirements last spring and set out to find a job in New York City's public schools. What follows is her account of that search and of her first year in the New York school system.

I graduated from Teachers College last May and started writing to the city's various district offices. I was told by just about everybody that going through the office of the central board was the worst way to find a job. But even in the community-district offices, no one was ready to talk with me. Everyone told me to call them back in August. They didn't want to know anything about me until then. But then, when I called back in August, they said to call in September. It wasn't until early September that people wanted to know who I was.

At that point, I spoke with several district-personnel people. I ended up sitting in one of the district offices for half a day. Finally, I was called in by this guy who gave me a form letter and told me it was for an interview with a principal of an elementary school in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. It wasn't the worst school in New York, but it was by no means one of the best.

I went in to the interview and said that I was interested in teaching 1st or 2nd grade. They said they wanted me to teach 4th grade, even though I later heard through other teachers that they had had openings in the grades I had wanted to teach. They said, 'We think you can handle the 4th grade because of your background.' I was getting desperate. I wanted to have a job by the first day of school, so I agreed to take it. They said, 'We want you for the position, but we'll have to get back to you.'

So I had to go back to the district office and sit around for another half day to get the appointment approved. I don't really know why I was there. I was just waiting in a room full of people to be told that I had a job.

After I was told I had the job, I went directly to the school. Classes were to start Monday, Sept. 14. This was Thursday, Sept. 10.

When I showed up, they gave me the key to my room and told me to go see a woman who is in charge of supplies. First I went to my room. It was completely empty except for the desks and chairs, half of which were kindergarten size.

I went down the hall to the person whom I was told would help me make out my supply list. She said, 'Well what do you need?' I said, 'Everything.' I was told this person would be very helpful, but she was cold and appeared annoyed that I was asking her questions. I made out the list, and then had to search for the supply lady. I finally found her, but by that time it was the end of the day. I had done no work on my room, and the next day was the Friday before school was to open.

The next morning, there was a staff meeting. It was not a happy gathering. There seemed to be some tension among the faculty.

When the principal read out the names of the new teachers, one black teacher said out loud, 'How come they are all white?' The staff was three-quarters black. I didn't feel welcome at all.

That afternoon, I finally got my supplies. A teacher came up and told me that the most important thing for me to do was to get the bulletin boards covered. She said that the principal likes to see the boards nice and done up. So I took the time and covered my bulletin boards with paper and put the alphabet up.

But I still didn't have any books; I hadn't received my curriculum guides; and I hadn't even gotten my class list.

Finally, late in the day, I got my class register. I had 17 boys and 4 girls. It was the lowest 4th grade in the school. Everyone told me the class was going to be horrible. They told me that I had better bring knives and chains.

After I got my class list, I went around trying to get books, curriculum guides, and the right-sized desks for my classroom. But other teachers and the assistant principal said not to worry about it until Monday, which was the first day of school.

No one really wanted to help me because they were all taking care of their own business. But their rooms looked good and had nice stuff in them. Here I was a new teacher, with no materials, nothing attractive on my boards, and feeling bad because my kids were going to walk into a room that had nothing in it on their first day of school.

On the first morning of school, nine kids out of the 21 showed up. By 10:30 A.M., five more had straggled in. I had one girl and 14 boys on that first day.

I had planned activities for them. I knew they were a slow group, so I had planned things that were on about a 2nd-grade level. But it had not been explained to me just how slow they were. Some had late 2nd-grade skills, but most had 1st-grade skills or less. At least four or five of them could not even add 4 plus 2.

But they weren't awful children. They did what I asked them to do. In fact, they were pretty well behaved until the end of the day, when they got a bit out of control because everything I had given them to do was too hard for them.

At lunch time, I went to find the 'buddy' teacher that the administration had assigned to help me. I walked into her room and introduced myself. She was standing there talking with several other teachers. She turned to me and said, 'Oh hello.' That's all she said, 'Oh hello.' No introductions to the other teachers in the room. Nothing. I went back to my classroom and ate lunch alone.

At the end of the day, I went to the assistant principal and said, 'Listen, I don't have any books. I don't have any curriculum guides. What little I do have is appropriate for kids with 4th-grade abilities, but not for these kids. I can't teach them how to multiply when they can't even add. If I am going to do anything, I have to take them from where they are and move them forward. Otherwise no one is going to learn.' I told him I was feeling frustrated and concerned.

"Well about the books,' he said, 'you probably won't get them for two or three weeks, because the person in charge of the book room won't be in until then.' I asked him if we couldn't get the key. He said that the principal didn't want people rummaging around in there, getting things disorganized.

I must say he was very sympathetic and supportive. We talked for more than an hour. I told him I didn't think I was going to last the week. 'I went into teaching to do a job,' I said, 'and I don't think I can do it here.' He said he understood, and told me not to feel bad.

When I left, I told him I would come back in the next day. But when I got home I started thinking about what I was going to have to do to have any learning occur. I could see that I was not going to be able to do what I thought I needed to do for those children to progress. I wasn't going to have a lot of materials. I wasn't going to be supported by the administration. And on top of that, there wasn't an atmosphere of collegiality within the school. I knew that as a first-year teacher, I would need a lot of support. And if I wasn't going to be able to get it from my administration and colleagues, where was I going to get it?

So I called the assistant principal at home and told him that I didn't think I would be coming back. I never talked to my principal after my initial interview.

I ended up going to another one of the community school districts in Brooklyn that I knew had some progressive programs. I knew some things about the superintendent, and I had liked the district's personnel director. He was about the only personnel official who asked me professional questions and questions about my background during my job search.

I ended up substituting in that district from the end of September until the middle of November, when I landed a full-time job teaching kindergarten in one of the schools that I had subbed in a lot. It was the only school I subbed in where the teachers actually invited me to join them for lunch. These are teachers that reached out to me immediately and have given me lots of help. The principal basically lets me teach the way I want to teach.

You may think this story has a happy ending, but it doesn't. There is no guarantee that I will have a job next year at my present school. The union contract states that senior teachers can apply to transfer in from other schools and bump out the six of us who have been teaching this year on 'temporary per diem' licenses. I have been told they can do this from the end of May until the second week of the school year.

There are rumors flying all over the place. I don't know what is going to happen.

I got off to this very rocky start, but I thought I had seen the end of this horrible experience. I am in a pretty good school as far as New York City schools go. I love my colleagues. Teaching has turned out to be what I hoped it would be.

But now, once again, I am wondering what is going to happen to me.

I would like to prepare materials for my class over the summer, but I can't because I don't even know if I will be teaching kindergarten next year. I don't even know if I will be in the same school. I'm afraid I may get sent to a school that won't let me teach the way I want to teach. I may face the same things all over again.

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