‘Becoming a Teacher in America’

By Anthony Rebora — September 15, 2004 2 min read
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A new book by a former New York Times education reporter offers an unblinking look into the world of a first-year urban educator. It could serve as a helpful primer for new and prospective teachers, particularly those coming through alternative-preparation routes.

In Ms. Moffett’s First Year: Becoming a Teacher in America (PublicAffairs, $ 25.00), Abby Goodnough chronicles the experiences of Donna Moffett, a former Manhattan legal secretary who was in the first crop of recruits from New York City’s Teaching Fellows alternative-certification program. Founded in 2000 during a crisis situation, the Fellows program was built around the notion that the city could curb teacher shortages and pump new energy into failing schools by luring talented and altruistic mid-career professionals into the classroom.

Moffett fit the mold nicely. In her mid-40s, she was stable and successful in her career, but also filled with intellectual ambition and a longing to do something more meaningful with her life. In a burst of inspiration that carried her through the Fellows’ rigorous application process and a whirlwind four-week training regimen, she became a first-grade teacher in a chronically under-performing elementary school in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood.

A central theme of Goodnough’s book is the conflict between Moffett’s idealistic notions of teaching and the harsh realities of an inner-city classroom. Goodnough captures the new teacher’s uneasiness in dealing with children whose lives are far removed from any-thing she has known—many of them impoverished and from chaotic homes, a few clearly suffering from emotional disorders. In sometimes wrenching detail, she recounts Moffett’s harrowing struggles with classroom management, highlighting her frequent powerlessness to halt onrushes of unruly behavior. There are painful moments when Moffett herself loses control.

If Moffett has trouble managing her students, she is equally worn down by what she sees as the top-down, stiflingly bureaucratic culture of her school. Drawn to teaching partly by its promise of intellectual stimulation and creative play, she finds herself having to subject her students to a rigidly scripted reading program and adhere to a pressure-packed daily schedule structured mainly to drive up the school’s test scores. Her spirits are routinely crushed by higher-ups who upbraid her—often harshly—for deviating from schedule and following what she feels are only her best instincts.

A study of an unsuspecting woman’s descent into school system beset by staggering challenges and riven by internal contradictions, “Ms. Moffett’s First Year” is also, however, a tale of survival. Goodnough shows Moffett gradually becoming a more adept and respected teacher even as her idealism partially wanes. Most movingly, Moffett becomes fiercely committed to her students, seeing their troubled lives as more and more intertwined with her own. And she is ultimately lifted up by small but unmistakable signs of both their academic progress and their growing affection for her. Goodnough’s book is a far cry from the familiar Hollywood portrayal of the heroic inner-city schoolteacher. And yet somehow that only makes Donna Moffett’s story more compelling.

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