It is the first day of school. After the teacher distributes the first assignment of the year, a diagnostic test, a student raises his hand and announces, “I don’t need to do this.” When the teacher asks why not, the student says, “I don’t need math. I’m gonna be a professional basketball player.” The teacher thinks for a second before countering with, “You’ll need math to keep track of your money.”
The student isn’t moved. “I’m gonna hire someone to do that for me.”
The teacher, intent on getting the last word, responds, “How will you know if the person you hire is cheating you?”
The student, even more intent, says, “I’m gonna get my cousin to do it for me. Are you saying my cousin is a cheater?”
I stand up in the back of the room and call “Time out!” and the teacher, the student, and the rest of the class turn toward me. Thankfully, the teacher isn’t a real teacher, and the student isn’t a real student. Not yet, at least. Both are teachers-in-training with the New York City Teaching Fellows program, which is designed to recruit and train people who want to start new careers as teachers in New York City’s most underresourced schools.
The 12 trainees range in age from 22 to 62. They left behind careers as actuaries, marketing consultants, lawyers, engineers, computer programmers, accountants, and advertising executives. I am their adviser, one of four mentors who will guide them through their 30-day training program. They desperately want to know the magic remark that will silence the basketball player and convince him to do his work.
There’s a recruitment poster for the New York City Teaching Fellows in the subway that asks the question, “Have you ever heard of a teacher quitting to do something ‘more important’?” To that, my answer is: “No, but I’ve heard of them quitting for plenty of other reasons.” Perhaps they were frustrated by their inability to convince the kids to complete their assignments. The New York City Teaching Fellows exist partly because of teachers who have left.
There are three components to the training of the teaching fellows. In the morning, they go to a public school in the community district in which they have been assigned. At that school, they have an opportunity to observe established teachers, and to have those teachers observe them while they practice teaching. In the afternoon, the fellows attend college courses on teaching methods. There, they learn the fundamentals of planning and implementing lessons, utilizing the latest advancements in math education. The final hour of their 12-hour day is spent with me.
In that bit of time, I attempt to fill any gaps left by the other two components, get the fellows to reflect on what they experienced at their schools that morning, and cover a curriculum of my own. I have 30 days to turn these accountants, engineers, and computer programmers into teachers who will not quit. Not quitting requires more than just perseverance, however. They need strategies to avoid situations where quitting seems to be the only option.
Like many rapid alternative-certification programs, the New York City Teaching Fellows Program has its critics. They say things like: “You wouldn’t want your kid operated on by a surgeon who trained for one month. Would you want your kid taught by a teacher who trained for one month?”
Teach For America proved that well-selected people could master the art of teaching, even without a traditional training program.
Questions like this were much more compelling 13 years ago, before the creation of Teach For America in 1990. Skeptics doubted then that it was possible for teachers to succeed in the classroom after an accelerated training program. As the data came in, however, Teach For America proved that well-selected people could master the art of teaching, even without a traditional training program. Many TFA alumni, in fact, have gone on to become leaders in the education world, creating their own charter schools, for instance, which are renowned throughout the country.
As it is with successful business leaders who don’t have Harvard M.B.A.s, or actors who have never studied the Stanislavsky Method, teaching is something that comes naturally to some people. Most people have taught hundreds of lessons by the time they are adults. At work, they taught the new employee how to fill out an expense report. Even as children, they taught their younger sibling how to tie his shoelaces. Aptitude for one-on-one tutoring is just one component of classroom teaching, however. Desire is another one, and these fellows have already demonstrated it by applying to the program. For everything else, they have 30 days.
What can be accomplished in such a short time period? As a teacher preparing my own classes for standardized exams, I learned the problem with cramming. Cramming always neglects the best part of a lesson, the part where the students learn. And the test the teaching fellows are about to take will be far from standardized. Their students, though, will be as intolerant of mistakes as any answer sheet for the state regents’ test filled in with a No. 2 pencil. Rather than cram, I have to concentrate on what the essential skills of an effective teacher are.
The secret to being a good teacher, I tell them, is “teacher presence.” Like the related “stage presence,” “teacher presence” is a combination of confidence, poise, charisma, dignity, and control. This includes the ability to use nonverbal communication effectively, like a powerful “teacher look.” New teachers must either have presence or learn to fake it. If the kids think their teacher is going to be good because she seems in charge, they’ll give her a chance to prove it. I have to teach these new recruits how to bluff.
By finding the right people and providing them with the means to stay above water, we increase the number of those who swim rather than sink.
I model effective teaching by making the sessions interactive. Rather than just lecture, I also lead group discussions, assign readings, and, most important, create role-playing scenarios. Role-playing enables the fellows to learn by doing. To practice the nebulous “teacher presence,” for example, the entire group participates in a classroom-simulation activity. One fellow is the teacher, while the rest are a class of rowdy students. The “students” have index cards on which their roles are defined: “You are talking on your cellphone.” “You wander around the classroom, ripping up other students’ papers.” “You throw up on your desk.” In addition to acting like kids, the fellows look for intangibles, such as if the teacher appears comfortable in front of the class. They evaluate how quickly the teacher responds to unusual circumstances. The simulated students are instructed to back off if the teacher exhibits “presence.”
The basketball player in the simulation who refused to do the diagnostic test was actually administering his own diagnostic test to the teacher. He wanted to see if his teacher had the confidence to respond the proper way—not with a magic penetrating remark, but with a professional paraphrasing of “Tough noogies.”
By finding the right people and providing them with the means to stay above water, we increase the number of those who swim rather than sink. Last year, I trained a similar group of 12 fellows, and every one of them is still teaching. Some are already great teachers, but I can’t take any credit for that. I was just trying to turn them into good teachers who wouldn’t get run out of their classrooms. I’ve seen that alternative-certification programs provide a viable source of teaching talent to schools that need it most.
Gary Rubinstein is the author of Reluctant Disciplinarian (Cottonwood Press, 1999). He has trained teachers for Teach For America, for the New York City Teaching Fellows Program, and at teacher-induction programs across the country. Gary Rubinstein can be contacted by e-mail.