Stories about idealistic but inexperienced teachers working in challenging urban schools generally do not have happy endings. These neophytes may love children and the notion of “reaching” them, but they quickly discover that schools can be inhospitable places and that even lovable kids can be, in terms of behavior and readiness to learn, conscientious objectors. Many do not return for a second year.
After reading the first 100 pages of New York Times reporter Abby Goodnough’s beautifully written chronicle, I expected her subject, 45-year-old Donna Moffett, to suffer the same fate. After a serious illness caused her to reassess her priorities, Moffett left her job as a legal secretary in the summer of 2000 to enter the New York City Teaching Fellows program, designed to place professionals from other fields into some of the city’s lowest-performing schools. Following a crash course in educational theory, Moffett finds herself teaching 1st grade in the Flatbush district of Brooklyn, where many of her students come from poor immigrant families.
Moffett had imagined inspiring in her students a love of great literature, and that seems to happen in the early weeks. They are so delighted with Jamberry, for instance, that they gleefully recite “One berry, two berry, pick me a blueberry.” But the enchantment doesn’t last long. The district mandates the use of Success for All, which requires teachers to follow a detailed script, “breaking drill-like reading programs,” Goodnough writes, “into segments of no longer than 10 minutes.”
Moffett not only dislikes the program (some colleagues call it “Stress for All”) but also comes to see its imposed rigidity as typical of the larger school system. Time and time again, Moffett is reprimanded by administrators for everything from skipping a lesson to failing to post on the bulletin board a sufficient amount of “standards-driven” work. At one point, she feels so bullied by the assistant principal that she meets the woman’s stare and says, “This will not be an abusive relationship.”
Goodnough makes clear that Teaching Fellows like Moffett are often resented by the “regular” public school folks—those who’ve gone through traditional credentialing programs and feel they’ve paid their dues. They see the Fellows as the “Harvard bunch” (highly ironic in the case of Moffett’s working-class background), as “New York’s version of Mother Teresa, blessing the schools with their presence and their Newbery books,” according to Goodnough.
This attitude does not improve the morale of the Fellows, who are overwhelmed by isolation, discipline problems, and exhaustion; 35 of 323 quit by November. But Moffett battles on despite frustration with the narrow curriculum and occasionally out-of-control students. Over time, she develops strategies to better connect with them. She takes children to lunch, learns about their home lives, and comes up with the “Mood Monitor"—wooden sticks labeled with the adjectives “happy,” “sad,” “angry,” and “sick” the children select from a can.
Most of all, Moffett heeds the advice of a progressive mentor from Brooklyn College, who says that a superior teacher can make her bosses “feel respected...while not abandoning your own instincts.” Such a strategy of accommodation, as teachers will realize, is risky: Following the party line can easily become an embrace of the status quo. But we learn in the epilogue that Moffett is still teaching 1st grade and seems to have achieved the delicate balance of providing both imaginative instruction and a focus on basic skills.
And so, Ms. Moffett’s First Year does have a happy ending. It provides a lesson for beginning teachers, too: You are going to struggle terribly early on, but if you want to teach badly enough, you can find a way to make it work.
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2004 edition of Teacher as MS. MOFFETT’S FIRST YEARS