June 24, 2002

My Brief Teaching Career


When I quit my job as an investment-banking analyst to become a New York City public school teacher, I knew I would be trading one set of challenges for another — stacks of papers to grade replaced late nights at the office, and recalcitrant students supplanted irascible managing directors. But I was eager to become a teacher and believed I could have a positive effect on young lives.

The daily reality of my New York City public school, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school where I taught mainly in the upper grades, would turn out to be shockingly grim: the attendance records where the number of absences can reach into the high double figures, the obscenities that ring in the hallways, the fateful test-score reports showing that even the brightest students often fall short of minimum state standards.

The inexperience of many New York City teachers, including me, contributes its own problems to this complicated tangle. Many of the almost 8,000 new teachers that the Board of Education hired last September were surely no more trained for the job than I was. I believed I was prepared to head a class, but a strong academic background and years in an office are not preparation for teaching, and the board's apparent strategy of balancing new hires' enthusiasm against their inexperience is ineffective. The turnover rate is so high that a school's "veteran" teachers have frequently been around only three years, which makes it hard for new teachers to find experienced mentors.

As an untrained teacher, I made my share of mistakes this year. I raised my voice at misbehaving students, trying to sound menacing, only to find that yelling was almost always ineffective. I burst into tears when a seventh grader swore at me and threatened to hit me. A more seasoned educator might have been able to defuse these situations or avoid them completely.

Lack of parental support, lack of experienced teachers, lack of a safe environment for teachers and students: these are terrible and familiar problems in the city schools, and for all these reasons this first year of teaching will be my last.

Lack of a supportive administration, however, exacerbates all these problems and is what ultimately pushed me to leave. When a teacher is overwhelmed by a class that defies order, for example, a principal should have some words of advice, particularly for a very inexperienced teaching staff without much other recourse.

I experienced precisely the opposite type of management. A seventh grader who had caused another teacher to need medical attention screamed at me to "get out of his face," in the presence of the principal, and she quietly asked him to lower his voice. While two students shouted "faggot" at each other, the principal turned to another girl and asked her to spit out her gum. Although teachers have been physically hurt, threatened and verbally abused, the "in-house suspension" usually meted out amounts to clerical work and chats with the secretaries and other suspended students in an air-conditioned office.

However, at seemingly sporadic intervals — usually around the time of a scheduled visit to the school by district officials — students might be handed a suspension for minor offenses. The teachers are not the only ones frustrated by these inconsistencies. An exasperated sixth grader commented: "It doesn't matter what you do bad here . . . if the principal's in a good mood that day, nothing happens. If she's mad at something else, you get suspended."

A new teacher faces long odds. The kids are tough, supplies scant and morale low. The enthusiastic new hires can conceivably chip away at these obstacles, but not when problems for new teachers are ignored, if not aggravated, by the administration. When that happens, people like me, whose training isn't in education, are likely to refer to their stint teaching in the city schools as "a really interesting experience" and move on.

The real victims of this exodus are the children, who do not have the option of abandoning the classroom to go back to business, to graduate school or into publishing. They are left to stick it out, each year with a new crop of recruits.

Natalia Mehlman will begin graduate work in history in the fall.

Copyright 2002
The New York Times Company