The New York City Teaching Fellows program matriculates its recruits into various universities in the City and subsidizes our two-year course of study towards a graduate degree in education. We are expected to earn this degree while teaching full-time at inner city public schools servicing at-risk youth. The only preparation we will receive for this is a seven-week training program during the summer.
Beginning in early June, we gather together in various rooms on The City College campus to discuss classroom management and little else, as if it might be possible to manage a room full of children without having something worthwhile to teach. Almost no time is devoted to the study of pedagogy, children’s psychology, and the art of teaching language and literature. We work on our teacher voices and diction, our teacher look and presence. We discuss hypothetical situations involving exclusively students who are unable or unwilling to learn, and who pose a constant threat to security.
Two of the classes are taught by a seventy-six-year-old man, who tells us two weeks into class that he had figured out how to live with dyslexia when he had worked with students who were also dyslexic. He is a treasure trove amidst a sea of bland, trite pedagogical dogma. He is at once profoundly fond of the children, and wry in his hysterically disturbing depictions of the teenagers who have shaped his life.
She may be small, he says when I complete a one-woman role-play in which I am to practice my teacher look. She might walk into the classroom and the kids think, she’s young, she’s small, she’s relatable, and what are they going to do? They’re going to start coming up with ways to eat her alive. But will she let them?
The room is quiet. We’ve heard enough, done enough of these roles plays. We get it: Stare them down; hold them responsible; raise the bar; close the gap. A guy in the back says, well, no, she’s got this look about her.
Exactly, the professor says, what kind of look?
She’s just got this I-don’t-take-shit-from-anyone attitude, the guys says, and I can swear his eyes are on my hips.
She may be small, the professor says, calling attention to my height now for the third time. But she has a big presence. They’re going to respect her.
Remember, he likes to tell us, you are not teaching classrooms. You are teaching rooms full of children. And children are little people. Vicious little people. They are always scheming ways to sabotage your presence and plans. So you must divide and conquer.
We laugh. But he is only partly joking.
If you tell a kid you’re gonna kill him, you gotta kill him, he tells us. Kids thrive on teachers who give up their rules and expectations. But that’s not the kind of thriving you want to help them do.
He tells stories about rowdy girls, shy boys, incompetent administrators, and laughable state standards. He tells us about parents who always came and the ones he never got to meet. And after every story, while we sit back, completely taken by his humor, depth and kindness, he says, but, well, these are my stories. Your kids will give you your own stories to tell.
When we look like we are oversaturated from academic jargon on sound pedagogical practices, Mr. Gluck engages us in scenarios in which we are to act as if we are consoling parents whose children will not graduate, or speaking with a student who is refusing to learn, or trying to convince a principal to order a class set of books. When we do something he thinks might actually work in the classroom, he stops to point out what had worked in our sketch, and explains why. When he critiques, it is to remind us that in everything we do, in every lesson and decision we ever make as teachers, we must be true to ourselves and driven by what the kids actually need to learn. He cautions us daily about becoming jaded, and asks us to please not burn out within the first two years.
He has no qualms about telling us that kids can be a pain in the neck. He tells stories of gum on the teacher’s chair, an uncovered can of cockroaches, and endless questions about everything under the sun except the lesson at hand. He had loved their questions. He says what the students wanted to know had mapped his plans for how and what to teach.
Have the kids do everything you can have them legally do for you, he tells us, as we take notes lest we forget his pearls of sarcasm. You never have to wipe the board, sort the books, sweep the room, collect their homework. Have them do that. You save yourself for when you have to pick up the pieces when they come to you with loss or guilt or some teenage nonsense. That’s where the energy goes. Never wipe the board.
Why did you teach for so many years? we ask this man who had spent thirty-five years in New York City classrooms, then left only to begin teaching those of us who would carry the torch in his place.
He says, I taught because I was needed. Whether the principal knows how to read and write, or whether you have been given a roster full of kids who have decided to hate your guts for a whole semester, whether or not you have books to teach from and chalk to write with, there is always a kid who needs you. And the way this kid needs you keeps you alive. That’s why you always stay, even when you want to slam the door and walk away. You stay for the kid who needs you.
Notice every kid. Especially the ones who are avoiding being noticed. Don’t pry. Don’t ask questions until you have them feeling safe. Tell her you like her hairstyle or her dress. Ask him how the mother is recovering from surgery. Tell him his essay made your day. You’re not teaching classrooms; you’re teaching people. And some of these little people are living lives you can’t even begin to imagine. Make your room a safe place. And be prepared to be a parent. Look at them. Sometimes, people forget to look at them.
This class is the highlight of the summer we spend preparing to teach in the fall. These bits of wisdom, and a slew of handouts, reading packets and books about effective pedagogy are all we receive by way of an education on teaching. As the summer unfolds, some leave the program, overwhelmed by the prospect of having to face their own students after this cursive course of study. Those of us who stay settle into a restless panic about how much we are expected to do for these kids, and how little we are learning about how to deliver on the promises of good teaching. So while the City is spending all this money on a massive teacher recruitment effort, too many things are lacking in the program, and many of us are venturing into teaching afraid, insecure, and at a complete loss for how to find jobs, and how to teach once we do.
Although we have been told that the City’s public schools were starving for teachers, especially in math, science and English as a Second Language, in which we will be earning our respective teaching licenses, many in our cohort struggle to find work. It is almost always the eternal problem with administrators requiring experience before hiring, which is impossible to offer if no one will hire you.