Sunday, January 8, 2012

Old Dogs and New Tricks: COACH for America-Redesigning our City Schools

How do we get new teachers...especially the current group of rookies who are probably populating our most needy classrooms to stay? We love their enthusiasm. We value their ideals. inspire an urban population to learn, there's so much more to it than that. I know, I've been there.

In the mid-seventies, our core of teaching graduates faced a similar situation to those that are graduating right now. We were the tail end of the Baby-Boomers, and that huge group had taken all the available jobs. When I first got out of school, I had to supplant my ideals, suck it up and take a job in order to pay my bills. I waitressed at night and worked in an office by day. I was a horrible typist, an even worse accountant, so they capitalized on my chattiness instead. They had me work to educate customers, to problem solve and to get cranky clients off their backs. But I still had my ideals in place. I just wanted a chance to immerse myself in a culture of kids. My chance came, but it wasn't exactly my dream job...or so I thought.

My first job was teaching hearing impaired preschoolers in Bridgeport, CT. I had zero experience in sign language and even less exposure to the deaf world. But that didn't matter. I had a classroom, keys and a coffee cup in the teachers' room. I was so ready to teach!

What I'd soon find out, and what I've spent years in that the path to understanding and defining myself as a teacher takes many circuitous routes. I learned an awful lot from the kids themselves...getting into their heads and trying to understand what they didn't know, so I could plug in the gaps and push them ahead in their education and their lives. But trial and error has a very long, hard learning curve. And today, my biggest worry is that young teachers will die on the vine before we have a chance to launch them, celebrate them and give them the support they need.

With no disrespect intended, colleges do the best they can do with our new crop. They do a lot more than was done when I was there back in the day. No one really knew how to best expose student teachers to all that they need to know. So much of it happens on the front line.

Here's my thinking about all this...if rookies are the biggest teaching population that our most needy urban students have, how can we move our urban kids forward? Must they always be the test kitchen for these brilliant, but often wasted minds? I have never forgotten my first days in the classroom...that feeling of being so overwhelmed. I believe the Teach for America model is a good one, but why not COACH FOR AMERICA as well? My thought is this: take those, like me, who are still so very passionate about what we do. Allow us to gain a 'two-for'...two years toward our retirement for every one year we coach in an urban school. Let us work with these rookie teachers (and their administrators), guiding and reflectin with them on everything they do. Give us the opportunity to infuse the curriculums with a richness that is currently absent there. (Most/many American urban public schools have reduced themselves to scripted learning...yup, the awful old basals are back, b/c they can't trust the teachers to immerse kids in great read-alouds and conversations anymore. High stakes testing has driven that decision with kids that are the most environmentally deprived on this earth.)

What this idea allows is a chance for the system to right itself. Use what we, the veterans, know, while clearing the way for more teaching jobs to emerge. I'm not a person looking to retire, but a teacher looking to right what's most wrong in education today. My inspiration came long ago in watching the third season of The Wire, set in the Baltimore Public Schools. Since then, it's grown and developed and I feel a need to put it out there for anyone willing to talk about it today.

Any takers?

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