“My parents emigrated from Russia with a mere hundred dollars between them. Some days my dad couldn't afford the bus, so he trudged 20 miles to and from his job scrubbing toilets at NYU, his calluses oozing,” I told my wide-eyed high school freshmen—mostly Dominican, all low-income—on my first day as a New York City Teaching Fellow in Washington Heights. “But the hard work paid off. My dad became a businessman and my mom became a doctor. They bought a house on Long Island and sent me to Columbia University.”
I aspired to be like the inspirational movie teachers—lyrical Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, standing on his desk and encouraging students to seize the day; tough army captain Michelle Pfeiffer pronouncing, in Dangerous Minds, “There are no victims in this classroom!”; bleeding-heart Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, wisely telling a student, “To get respect, you have to give it.”
“You’re going to graduate from high school and go to college—a great college—and become whatever you want to be!” I told my new students. And then, surveying the rapt faces, I added, “What you’re not going to do is drop out, sell drugs, or get pregnant.”
The temperature in the room dropped. Countenances fell. Whispers rose.
Beside me stood a girl I’ll call Milagros—14 years old and chubby-cheeked—her belly swollen with the weight of a pregnancy in its sixth month. (All names of teachers, students, and administrators have been changed for this story.) Shuffling her feet, she whispered, “Miss, can I go to the bathroom?”
I nodded, incapable for the moment of uttering another word.
In the summer of 2005, during my five-week training for the New York City Teaching Fellows program at Fordham University, we’d been told that in order to “close the achievement gap” we must set “high expectations” for our students. The implication was that we were countering regular teachers’ low expectations, which were the cause of the achievement gap.
The program had been created by ex-chancellor Harold Levy in 2000 to solve the city’s chronic shortage of teachers. Using Teach for America as a model, the Board of Education began hiring high-achieving college graduates with no formal education training and quick-certifying them with a three-year Transitional B Certificate. While teaching, fellows are enrolled in subsidized night and summer courses for a master’s degree in education. With its 8 percent acceptance rate, the program felt like an exclusive club.
And administrators bolstered this perception. Before I even started my pre-service boot camp, I interviewed with Dr. Janice Sorrento, a high school principal who was known as a whiz at turning around failing schools. She hired me on the spot. It was like a scene out of a Busby Berkeley musical where a Broadway baby from Ohio gets off the bus at Port Authority and a producer hands her a starring role on the Great White Way.
My perception of myself was further elevated by the media, which insisted that America’s teachers were lazy and ill-qualified, in it for the summers off and the retirement pay. In turn, I knew, career teachers often perceived TFAers and fellows as resume-padding fly-by-nighters. The programs, which ask for a mere two-year commitment, often serve as stepping-stones to more lucrative careers in law, business, and government. In fact, there were Teach for America flyers plastered around Fordham University advertising how the program could help get you into Stanford Business School. Only about 20 percent of TFAers and fellows are still teaching after five years, and many of those who are have moved on from the low-performing schools they started out serving. For some, teaching is a layover in Des Moines on the way to St. Bart’s.
Aware of this tension, I was initially leery about stepping into the Teacher Center—an L- shaped, lime-colored room with formica tables, ratty couches, and ancient computers that had never known wi-fi. Because it was on the first floor, bars protected the windows.
The first time I visited, I found teachers scattered in cliques—bright-eyed fellows in their circles and world-weary veterans in theirs. Moseying over to the snack table, I poured myself some coffee, which I quickly spit out. It was burnt. I bit into a cookie and almost chipped a tooth. Unlike wine, cheese, and Liam Neeson, Oreos do not improve with age. I threw the cookie in the trash. Plunk.
Looking up, I saw a 60-something-year-old woman who’d had one too many suntans and Marlboros glaring at me from behind her gigantic desk. “I’m Bea. Oy run the Teacha Center,” she barked. “Who are you?”
I told her my life story—how I’d been working in TV production, questioning my direction in life, when I saw an ad on the subway that said, You remember your favorite teacher’s name. Who will remember yours? “So, on a whim I applied to the New York City Teaching Fellows, and here I am! Oh—and I went to Columbia.”
“Never heard of it,” she snapped and looked back at her computer screen.
Chuckles resounded from certain corners of the room.
I walked over to Dan Marin, a fatherly teacher whose grey hair reflected a life devoted to fractions, polynomials, and derivatives. “What’s her problem?” I asked.
Dan gave me the lowdown on Bea Kaufman. She was just a few years short of retirement. As a card-holding member of the United Federation of Teachers, she was putting her veteran status to good use by running the UFT Teacher Center. In addition to burnt coffee, the center offered a professional development program through which Bea mentored new teachers at our school and the other three schools in the building. (In 1999, ahead of its time,the single large unwieldy school had been broken down into four smaller and more manageable academies. In 2002, The New York City Department of Education, with the support of the Gates Foundation, launched an initiative to similarly convert other low-performing large secondary schools into small schools.)
Bea was the Queen of the Teacher Center—the boss, the doyenne, the sugar momma who helped you function in a failing system. But you had to show her respect.
“Throwing the cookie out,” Dan explained. “That’s a no-no.”
Bea, sitting smugly at her desk, was surrounded by posters bearing pro-teacher slogans reminiscent of the propaganda my Soviet-born parents remembered from the Young Communist League:
To make a difference, be the difference!
Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, pass laws about teaching.
Solidarity! We teach the children! Together we decide!
Interspersed with these slogans were postcards inscribed with syrupy words of advice:
Be humble; it’s not about you.
Honor each student’s narrative.
The only reward is your connection to the kids and that is enough.
Bea grudgingly handed me a blue and white plastic case printed with the letters “UFT.” It held pencils, dry erase markers, scissors, loose-leaf paper, thumbtacks, a key chain, a USB drive, Tic Tacs. It also held a pack of Kleenex.
“For my first cold?” I asked, examining the tissues.