Why Many New Teachers Are Unprepared to Teach in Most New York City Schools

By Schwartz, Frank | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview

Why Many New Teachers Are Unprepared to Teach in Most New York City Schools


Schwartz, Frank, Phi Delta Kappan


The disquieting and undeniable reality, Mr. Schwartz maintains, is that novice teachers are not adequately prepared by their colleges and universities for the classroom circumstances found in typical city schools. He suggests ways to deal with that problem.

About one of every five new teachers (18.5%) will leave the New York City public school system after just one year. About one of three (31%) will leave after three years. Are city schools so difficult to teach in, or have these new teachers not been properly prepared to educate our urban youngsters?

The public and many educators seem to feel that public schools should bear the full responsibility for this sad attrition rate. But shouldn't colleges that prepare teachers assume some reasonable accountability for fulfilling their alleged mission? The reputations of law schools, medical schools, engineering schools, and so on are determined primarily by the accomplishments of their graduates. Why shouldn't we invoke comparable criteria for colleges of education?

One key issue in the colleges' preparation of teachers is the nature of student teaching. Research studies consistently find that a high percentage of prospective and practicing teachers regard student teaching as their most valuable training experience.(1)

The usual student teaching scenario goes like this. Professors arrange student teaching placements in schools that are "exemplary." This practice offers prospective teachers favorable environments in which they can learn from successful teachers. They usually work in one or two classrooms under the supervision of excellent teachers, and they are encouraged to interact with other faculty members to become familiar with a variety of effective teaching practices. After graduation, these novice teachers are expected to apply their acquired pedagogical knowledge and skills in their new teaching position, wherever it may be. A reasonable approach? Apparently so.

But does this mean that novice teachers are ready to perform successfully in most New York City schools? Apparently not. Otherwise, why would so many leave, and why do so many who do stay feel frustrated and despairing? Why does what seems reasonable in theory not work out in reality?

Consider a hypothetical example. A new teacher, Ms. Jones, has been very well prepared by her student teaching for classrooms in schools that are "exemplary." If her first teaching position is in such a school, Ms. Jones will probably fare well. Unfortunately, the typical city school is not only not exemplary, but quite likely to have an ineffectual learning environment that will make it discouragingly difficult for Ms. Jones to apply the principles she learned in her "model" school. Her transition is apt to be traumatic.

What are the new realities that make Ms. Jones' transition so traumatic and often unmanageable? As a new teacher, she is suddenly alone instead of being part of a team of two, herself and her supervising teacher. Ms. Jones probably has fewer materials, they are likely to be of lower quality, and her room may be in need of repair or renovation. She may be staggered by the cumulative weight of unanticipated detail - meetings before or after school, a bombardment of "homeroom" minutiae, concerns of parents, a ton of paperwork, and so on. In addition, she will face the uphill challenge of continually creating stimulating classroom activities for the approximately 25 (elementary) or 120 to 150 (secondary) students with whom she will interact daily.

Moreover, many of Ms. Jones' students may be resentful or angry because they have not had the advantages of being in an "exemplary" school and have had to endure the burdens of surviving in an economically impoverished, often dangerous neighborhood. Students can't be fooled, and they know when they are being respected and when they are being neglected by an insulting learning environment. And, like adults, they respond accordingly. …

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