Strong teachers aren’t mass-produced.
During my turbulent induction via the New York City Teaching Fellows, I ran straight from mornings observing summer school at the Bronx’s P.S. 85 to four-hour “Fellow Advisory” afternoon sessions in a cramped elementary school classroom several stops away on the 4-train. The classroom, used primarily for 2nd graders, was built to handle about 25 2nd-grade-sized bodies. We were 35 adults. It was uncomfortable and by the end of the interminable scripted sessions on standards and benchmarks, we fled the place. I had no personal rapport with the facilitating “Fellow Advisor,” an adjunct teacher who resigned from the Department of Education later that year.
Rootless, I relied on my wits when I re-entered the classroom in September, this time to lead a 4th grade homeroom. It was a disaster.
Several years later, at a full-fledged M.A. program at Teachers College, I found myriad one-on-one opportunities to reflect and learn the craft, and I realized what I’d missed during that initial crucible in the Bronx.
For my student-teaching placement at DeWitt Clinton High School, I was paired with an exceptional mentor, Ray Pultinas, who wrote me daily longhand letters from the back of the classroom while I taught. The letters encompassed a range of reactions, suggestions, and lesson-related musings, and they were invaluable to my growth as an educator. Even more importantly, we had time each day to talk through my decisions and ideas. Like a great teacher, he never ordered me to do things his way, but rather guided me to become a better version of myself. This one-on-one time made all the difference in building my skill and will to stay in the classroom and thrive.
In a valuable assignment for my TC “Teaching of Writing” class led by Erick Gordon, I wrote a New Yorker-style profile of another educator. I interviewed a middle school teacher and single father who had emigrated from Jamaica to teach in Harlem named Mr. Phillips, a colleague from my student-teaching placement. The experience of shadowing Mr. Phillips, interviewing him about his teaching life, and attempting to do him justice in prose sharpened my understanding of so much that I could never glean from sitting in a grad-school classroom.
Individual attention unlocks the best in people. It’s something teacher-prep programs must emphasize—and something their graduates in the field must remember with their charges as well.
Dan Brown teaches high school English in Washington, D.C. A National Board-certified teacher, he is the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.
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