In my first month as a New York City teaching fellow, two of my fifth graders climbed on their desks and urinated. I saw seven fistfights. A student threatened to shoot me.
I was proud to be there.
The New York City Teaching Fellows program is designed to attract successful people into public education. It pays for master's degrees, which lead to public school teaching certification, in exchange for service in schools where good teachers are needed most.
In spite of the problems I witnessed, I was motivated to be a positive force in my school. But having no experience or knowledge of how to handle a classroom overrun by behavior problems, I was at a loss to translate my ambitions into results.
I represented the chief criticism of the fellowship and programs like it: the teachers with the least experience are sent to the schools that need experience the most.
I stayed a fellow for two years and was then hired by the school district of Pelham, N.Y., an affluent town in Westchester County with high-achieving schools. Pelham is a 20-minute drive from my first job, but the environments could not be more different, leaving me to ponder what should be done for the children in districts like the one I left.
Last year, because of a budget shortfall, Pelham offered teachers an incentive for early retirement without penalty to their pensions. This allowed the district to hire two rookie teachers for the same price it took to keep one veteran.
This got me to thinking about how to solve the problem that I had run into as a new teacher in a tough urban school: why not combine early retirement incentives with a teaching fellowship for experienced, veteran teachers? That could not only help our failing schools, but could also save school districts money.
It would work like this:
Step 1: A committee finds three experienced kindergarten teachers (25-30 years on the job) from a district (suburban or otherwise) where they are able to retire from the state system (with generous pension plans).
Step 2: These teachers are offered incentives to retire (in accordance with their local contracts) three years early from their district, saving that district their salaries. In exchange, they agree to spend two years in a failing school, both teaching students and mentoring student teachers from a fellowship program. This begins in kindergarten, at the age when this level of professional teaching experience would have the most impact.
Step 3: A failing city school hires the three experienced teachers at rookie teacher salary. That salary, combined with the teachers’ accelerated pension, should be comparable to what they would have earned teaching in their original districts. The failing school acquires services of both a master teacher and a student teacher, both at the cost of a first-year hire.
Step 4: Instead of sending unprepared student teachers directly to the classroom, the committee assigns them to shadow the master teacher, where they receive a full year of expert mentoring, and are in line to take over the job when the master teacher fully retires.
Step 5: The process is repeated the next year for first-grade teachers, a year later for second grade, and so on. Along the way, the students have two teachers per class, and benefit from master teachers guiding them through their elementary school years.
Why would a teacher leave a highly regarded school district to relocate to a failing school? For the same reasons that thousands of the nation’s brightest college graduates join Teach for America: because they are committed to change.
This can ensure that the ends of teachers’ careers are meaningful, by allowing them to bring their expertise where it is most needed. At the same time, they would be mentoring a new teacher, knowing they are leaving behind their skills to someone who will be working for some time, where those skills are most needed, in today’s urban areas.
With experienced teachers in charge, discipline problems can be addressed early, establishing a culture of good behavior in kindergarten, and then reinforced in first and second grades as the program continues.
Obstacles to the implementation of this idea exist, such as the state’s cap on earnings while receiving a pension. But with the cooperation of the teachers’ unions and the state, these caps could be lifted for individuals in this program, as it would be less costly than closing failing schools.
With the 10 years of teaching experience I now have, I know I could have served the students from my first school in New York City so much more effectively. The complexity of the problems facing these schools and their children makes it imperative that politicians and teachers find ways to solve them, jointly and creatively.