Teaching the Teachers for America

Just before 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday, as 25-year-old David Nitkin prepared to teach his eighth-grade humanities course at Bronx Mathematics...

David Greene (front) takes notes on his iPad during a recent class taught by David Nitkin (background), a teacher Greene mentors. Nitkin is in his second year at Bronx Mathematics Preperatory School and in the Teach for America program. (Photo by Jason Tomassini)

Just before 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday, as 25-year-old David Nitkin prepared to teach his eighth-grade humanities course at Bronx Mathematics Preparatory School, his mentor David Greene had already found something that annoyed him.

Greene peered over his glasses at a collage of vocabulary worksheets taped over the classroom windows. Stapled over those sheets, however, was another worksheet, with the title “Data Reflection.” On it, students were asked to analyze their own vocabulary grades.

“Should they be analyzing the data, or the results of the data?” Greene asked, his six-foot-five-inch frame slouching in disbelief and turning toward Nitkin, who was placing graded assignments on empty desks. “Well they do that as well,” Nitkin responded after a pause.

Greene persisted, noting that many students answered the question, “What can I do better?” with “I’ll listen better.” Nitkin, still passing out papers, paused for several moments and said dispassionately. “Yeah, there’s not a ton of thought with that.”

Spend time with Greene in a New York City public school and there are countless moments like this. Even after a teaching career of about 40 years, half spent in the Bronx and another half in Westchester County, he marvels at the restrictions and data-driven pedagogy of the current education system. Greene is a “field specialist” at the Fordham University assigned to mentor Teach for America (TFA) participants who are taking graduate-level courses at Fordham. But he’s also an ardent critic of the performance metrics-based approach to teaching espoused by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Teach for America itself.

“There’s a difference between getting the work done and understanding what they’ve done,” he said to Nitkin after class that day.

Nitkin and 12 other young teachers Greene mentors meet with him periodically through their first or second years teaching in some of the city’s poorest schools. Typically, Greene will observe a class, taking notes on his iPad and occasionally asking questions of the teacher and students. He then meets with his mentee after class to discuss what worked and what didn’t. They then correspond via e-mail over the next few days to shape the rest of the lesson plan Green observed.

“Mentoring is something I’ve wanted since I started–very specific feedback on what’s good and what’s bad,” Nitkin said after his discussion with Greene. “What I want, honestly, is someone in my class every day telling me what to do and what not to do.”

David Greene watches David Nitkin, a teacher he mentors, as Nitkin teaches his eighth grade humanities course at Bronx Mathematics Preperatory School. (Photo by Jason Tomassini)

For Greene, it is an interesting time to be mentoring young teachers in New York City. At least publicly, young teachers have been pitted against older teachers in the debate over the district’s “last in, first out” seniority-based layoff system. Eight of the 34 teachers at Bronx Mathematics Prep, for instance, would be laid off if the current schools budget and “LIFO,” as its called, are upheld, according to a recent list released by the city Department of Education.

Layoffs, however, seem to be the least of Greene’s concerns for his teachers. Instead, he worries that they’ll learn to teach the wrong way.

“They are learning TFA rules and taking it as gospel,” Greene said. Teach for America’s approach is formulaic, he said, focusing on data-based evaluation, student comprehension of standardized test taking and a turgid system of passive compliments and discipline.

When coupled with the education department’s more stifling initiatives, the results make Greene cringe. An assistant principal observed Nitkin’s class when Greene was there and afterward, she pulled Nitkin aside for a brief critique.

“The classroom looks great,” was among her notes.

“See, this is what I’m dealing with,” Greene whispered, his animated face showing his outrage. “It’s all superficiality. It’s about the show.”

Nitkin’s class opened with 40 minutes of silent reading, part of a schools initiative for each student to read 100 books in a school year. Students whispering to each other and Nitkin’s compliments and reprimands occasionally broke the silence. “This is a perfect volume and we have six books open reading,” Nitkin said while walking through the classroom and assessing students’ (called “scholars” at Bronx Mathematics Prep) level of focus.

Greene says those compliments are “TFA-scripted.” Hearing that opening your book earns a compliment, a girl sitting closest to Greene opens her book, “Alice in Wonderland,” and stares at it without turning the page for several minutes.

The Bronx Mathematics Preparatory School is a typical placement for Teach for America participants. It received a C on its Department of Education Progress Report last year, including an F for school environment. It is predominantly African American and Latino, and many of the teachers have less than three years experience. Nitkin, a Yale University graduate, is upbeat and very organized, but, as Greene notes, far more effective dealing with students one-on-one than in a group setting.

Nitkin showed off that strength after a lesson in which half the students are sent to the library and he is left with a few groups of three or four students to instruct. As students examined works of art that affect social change, they joked with Nitkin and Greene, who many know by name. They asked the two adults to sing “Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holiday, a song speaking out against racism and lynching that would eventually become a civil rights protest song. Nitkin, baby-faced and clean-shaven, was ridiculed for how young he looks. A discussion with one student about the song’s graphic nature is thoughtful and productive, revolving around the symbolism of the violent references, not the salaciousness of it.

“There’s a huge difference between when he can speak with the kids and work with them and the documented, authoritarian stuff,” Greene said.

But then the other group returned. As they barreled into the room, a girl discussed what kind of social change art could create. She started and stopped her answer several times. One student sarcastically commented, “Oh very nice discussion here.” “Excuse me!” she shouted back.

When Greene and Nitkin met after class, Greene asked what went well.

“There was a question over the course of the day and it was answered. How do artists affect social change?” Nitkin said.

“What if you asked them now? Could they write a five-paragraph essay?” Greene responded.

After a pause Nitkin answered: “No. We will go back over the documents tomorrow and write an essay on Monday.” Greene suggested that rather than write an essay, the students could actually create a piece of art—a drawing, a poem a rap song—that they think can affect social change. Nitkin loved the idea and decided to implement it, in addition to have students write the essay.

“He stresses inquiry-based teaching… the common sense of managing kids and people and being a presence in the room,” Nitkin said after the mentoring session. “That isn’t policy jargon but it’s important.”

Greene, who is 61 but youthful—he wore jeans and a University of Wisconsin baseball cap to school that day and has an impassioned, animated way of speaking—learned that approach through his own experiences teaching, especially as a student teacher. He spent most of his student teaching year observing and only in the last quarter of the year he was he allowed teach a class.

That’s very different from the TFA training. Before they enter their two years of teaching, Teach for America participants have only a summer session, often described as “boot camp,” where they learn teaching methodology, and a few weeks at a summer school.

“It’s very important for corps members to get into the classroom,” Kaitlin Gastrock, a Teach for America spokeswoman, said of that approach. “They are in the classroom themselves, setting goals and using data to meet those goals.”

John Bilby, a former mentee of Greene’s, is among 700 names on a petition to Teach for America asking that a one-year preparation period be required for all participants before teaching a class full-time.

Bilby quit Teach for America less than a year into the program to pursue a master’s degree and teaching certificate at CUNY. He wanted the traditional path to teaching—observation and student teaching.

“It’s science-based,” he said of the Teach for America approach. Greene’s approach “is art-based.”

David Nitkin instructs a student as his mentor, David Greene, looks on. Greene, a field specialist at Fordham University, mentors several current participants in Teach for America. (Photo by Jason Tomassini)

Greene grew up working-class in the Bronx—his father was a trucker and his mother worked in the garment district—in some of the same neighborhoods where his mentees teach. In the second grade, he recalls, his class wrote essays on school integration addressed to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

His first teaching job was at Stevenson High School, in the Bronx, where older teachers looked after him. He taught there 16 years and eventually paid back the guidance he had received by looking after younger teachers. When he realized that the only step up was moving into administration or teaching in the suburbs, he took a job at Scarsdale High School in the early 1990s, and taught there until retiring two years ago.

“We were treated like professionals,” he recalled. “I was lucky. I had friends that ended up with very different sets of experiences.”

Similarly, some of the teachers he mentors have lots of support while others don’t. Some get physical education teachers as mentors, even if they are English teachers.

That’s why, despite his criticism of teaching institutions, Greene values his role as an objective ally to young teachers. He said young teachers are often overloaded with older educators telling them the right way to teach. At one point during Nitkin’s class six adults were in the classroom.

“Just when you get a handle of it, here’s a guy coming in and saying there’s another way to do it,” Greene said.
Nitkin seems to side with Greene. He questioned whether to look for teaching jobs at other schools and, while he wants to stay in education long-term, he’s not sure if he will always be a teacher.

But at least on that day, after a session of criticism from Greene, things end with a bit of perspective.

“I’m better than my first year, but it’s not where it needs to be,” Nitkin said.

“Well it’s progress!” Greene responded. “You’ve only been doing this for a year and a half!”

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