Before becoming a teacher straight out of NYU at 22, I’d enjoyed a successful career as a student. Recruited by Teach For America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, I was convinced that I had this school thing figured out. I joined the Teaching Fellows because they could guarantee me a placement in New York, and then embarked on a seven-week summer training prior to teaching a 4th grade homeroom at the Bronx’s P.S. 85.
That frenzied summer was a blur of mornings in summer school classes and afternoons of deciphering standards, writing lesson plans, and hypothetical classroom decorating. When the first day of school came I was nervous, but I leaned on a foundation of self-confidence built upon all of my successful years in school. Pretty much everything else has worked out when I’ve given my all; how wrong could this go?
My classroom in the first months in the Bronx earned choice adjectives: volatile, disjointed, adversarial, even violent. I struggled at every turn to lead a stable place for learning; most of the battles I lost. I left P.S. 85 after that year, armed with a desire to learn the craft and return to the classroom, but aware that an educational travesty had just occurred. For my students, that was their 4th grade year—time they can’t recover.
Looking back, my ignorance was staggering. I had bought—with the help of my alternative-certification program designed to plug chronic staffing shortages—the most insidious myth about teaching: anybody smart and dedicated can swoop in and rock it.
A learning curve for teaching’s complex set of responsibilities is inevitable but it needn’t be so steep. Supporters of programs that offer only a summer of preservice training must understand that those rookies’ first classes will largely be unsatisfactory learning environments and their unwitting students will suffer the collateral damage. The arrangement facilitates perpetual attrition of would-be good teachers.
The most important baseline that preparation programs must provide incoming teachers is substantial time in a variety of classrooms before those rookies assume the reins. An entire school year of structured observation and apprentice-teaching must be standard.
The two semesters of student teaching I experienced in an M.A. program at Teachers College, Columbia University, laid the groundwork for me to find a sustainable path forward as a reflective, community-involved, and recently, National Board-certified teacher. TC’s top-quality program is cost-prohibitive for many ($1,231 per credit plus fees for a 38-credit degree), so investment from foundations and government grants in subsidizing and replicating high-quality teacher prep is also desperately needed.
I wish I had known just how clueless I was that first day in the Bronx. The quickie training abetted my hope that I could paper over my lack of knowledge of the teaching craft with my wits and will. Ultimately, reality—26 children with many needs—stared me in the face and saw my ineptitude.
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.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.