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C'est la Z

Good Schools for New Teachers

Usually, when I write about a teacher get together it's either my StuyCS people or CS educators. Last week, it was another group. Each year, Devorah, along with a bunch of her former colleagues from the Manhattan Center for Science and Math (MCSM) get together for a year end celebration. They've been doing this for something like 20 years even though most of the crew is retired now and all but I think one or two have left MCSM. For the most part, they all started close to the same time and most were in the Science department. I've joined in from time to time and they usually get a good crowd of between one to two dozen teachers. Last year, the gathering focused on Devorah's retirement and this year on another from the crew.

To be honest, I'm a little jealous. sure, we used to have periodic end of term lunches at Stuy but to keep a group together even after so many have left the fold is pretty cool.

David, a terrific Physics teacher in the group (and presumably the retiring honoree next year) made a comment, noting that so many of the group started at around the same time. He said that they were really lucky because MCSM was a really good school for new teachers. He commented on how much support he got across the board and how his colleagues, supervisors, and administrators really helped him and others grow.

This got me thinking. My first few years of teaching were at Seward Park High School - actually, a school with some similarities to MCSM. Both were large schools. Not giant monsters like Stuy or Brooklyn Tech but still pretty large. Both also had a range of students in terms of ethnicity as well as academic performance. In those early days I had classes with kids on parole, drug dealers, and thugs and I also had classes with the nicest kids you'd ever met. I had kids who in 10th grade or beyond could barely add and I had super high achieving honors students. All that and everything in between.

The biggest difference between MCSM and Seward Park is that at Seward most of the faculty were at war with the administration.

I've been told often that "bad" schools - rough students and/or horrid administrations frequently result in very close knit faculties and that seemed to be true at Seward. They all banded together and as a newbie, they took me under their wings. Now, I personally had no problems with the administration - I got along very well with my direct supervisor and he loved me but I still was adopted by so many others. New teachers frequently get the worst program but my chairman had a different approach - he rotated everybody - he worked to give me - the new kid - some tough classes and some easier ones and worked to get me through the entire math sequence quickly. As to the faculty - they helped me with lessons, sat in on my class, and let me sit in with them. They also saved me with discipline issues. I had one particularly rough class and a colleague with nonchalantly wander in to use a computer in the back of the room. He came in because he knew his presence would help with the discipline. The kids settled down and were non the wiser. Mike (his name as well), would then on a day to day basis work with me between classes until I could handle things on my own.

Without the support of teachers like Mike, as well as a handful of others, I would never have made it to year two let alone a three plus decade career. Very little of this support I got was official but it was critical in my staying in and succeeding as a teacher.

Now, MCSM didn't have a dysfunctional administration. In fact, from what I saw, they were pretty good. It wasn't until three principals later that they got their disaster, which ultimately prompted a handful of retirements and many transfers so might be fairly unique that Dave, Devorah, and all of them had a school with both a good administration and a united faculty, or at least science department that really fostered the development of new teachers.

I think something that also helped both at Seward for me and MCSM was the size of the school. Being large schools, there were always multiple teachers for each subject. That meant a new teacher was never on an island. It also meant that there were many other teachers to observe, learn from, and get support from. It also meant that there was never just one or two of the more desirable classes so while new teachers might have gotten less desirable programs, they didn't get the worst of the worst.

Contrast those two schools with Stuyvesant when I started. Stuy was also a large school - in fact much larger, with few discipline problems. I'd say that Stuy, back then, was much worse in terms of new teacher development. Sure, teachers were nice enough - I became friends with a number of them, but truth be told the most you'd get would be some notes from a previous semester or you could quietly sit in on class. At Seward, I got that, plus debriefings but check ins and more. At Stuy, I got the least desirable classes until I took over CS (although even the worst classes at Stuy were pretty desirable) as well as the worst rooming situation - I was running from the third floor to the 7th and back between three periods early on. At Seward, my program was pretty much the same as everyone else. I'd like to hope I helped foster a better environment as the CS program grew and we brought in new teachers but I can't say.

Another problem with Stuy, at least for new teachers, and this is probably true at many high performing schools, both public and private, is that new teachers don't really have to learn how to teach. They can be bad at their craft and the students will still pass the standardized exams. I've seen new teachers at stuy who never taught elsewhere who thought they were great but really weren't - at best they got by on the fact that they were young and had some charisma. Their kids did alright but deserved better. Some were self aware enough to figure it out but by and large it was an issue. Of course at a tough school the new teacher would just leave the profession while at the high performing school, the teacher in question might go on to a career of just not teaching that well.

In a profession with an extremely high attrition rate and also one where much preservice preparation is, let's say, limited, we have to do better. Obviously the biggest issues are things like class size, pay, and benefits but starting out at a school that's friendly to new teachers can be the difference maker.

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