Monday, February 2, 2009

The Fellowship of the Fellowship

Like Confused NYC Teacher, I'm a former NYCTF who is watching the news of layoffs and cutbacks with great interest as to the future of the Fellows program. I am of two minds about the Fellowship. On one hand, I doubt that I would have become a teacher without it; on the other, I suspect that it does more harm than good.

Let's look at the good. I think the Fellowship does do well when it brings in mature, serious people who are ready to become teachers after careers in other professions. I have a colleague who is a former attorney and EMT. His life experience and age (40+) both served him incredibly well in the classroom. My experience in publishing, even though I was a relatively young career-changer, still gave me perspective on life beyond the classroom. I think mature career-changers can indeed be great assets to classrooms, if they have a real long-term commitment to staying in teaching.

But then there's the bad. Smart as I was, idealistic as I was when I started in the program, I was terribly underprepared. For the better part of three years, I have been flying by the seat of my pants and learning on the job. I sought out a lot of professional development (and thank goodness my administrators supported me in going); I formed close relationships with excellent, experienced colleagues; I tried not to reinvent the wheel; I stayed in contact with my fellow Fellows as we muddled through our first two years. This year is the first year that I have felt like a competent teacher. Not a good one, not a great one. Just competent. In the meantime, what, exactly, did I do for those first two years? The best I could, sure, but that wasn't anything special. I find that my former students are much more forgiving than I could have realized. I remain in touch with many students from my first school (I am no longer there), and they seem to remember me with fondness, which I appreciate. They recognize good intentions, which is great, but I didn't have much more than that for my first year.

The Fellowship is sold to its recruits as a program for the best and brightest young graduates and career changers to replace the supposed waves of retiring teachers. Of course, what I've learned in the past three years is that there are many, many teachers who could, and in the vast majority of cases should, take their places (the ATR problem with which you are probably familiar if you are a regular reader of NYC teacher blogs). A Fellowship might still be a good idea, but it should be much smaller, and should concentrate on more mature individuals who are committed to making careers in education. The Fellowship and Teach for America (TfA is guiltier than NYCTF, in my opinion, but both to some extent) allow or encourage individuals to apply who have no intention of remaining in the system and committing to being part of an excellent teaching corps for the long term. Research has shown that "the revolving door" is very damaging to children--that even an ostensibly excellent first-year teacher, with good test scores and undergrad grades, damages student achievement if s/he doesn't stick around and is instead replaced with another first-year teacher. And who gets stuck with "the revolving door"? If you guessed "our lowest-achieving, poorest, most marginalized population," you're right!

That brings us around to the issue of the budget cuts. As a former NYCTF and a prospective Fellow Advisor, I strongly support the program being slashed. In fact, freezing it for the foreseeable future may not be a bad idea. Relaunch the Fellowship when times improve as a much smaller program focused exclusively on mature career changers. There is no need for a vast army of newbies to come in to teach our most challenged children. Now that I'm on the inside and have done the research, I've learned that it's a recipe for disaster.