This post draws from my first journal entry as a brand-new New York City Teaching Fellow about ten years ago. I’d spent plenty of time working with children as a teenager, and a year as a photography teacher at a school in Yonkers, but I was not prepared for what was to come. [Our summer school assignments were intended to be an observational period — an opportunity to watch and learn from a veteran teacher, and as time went on, to try our hand at teaching a lesson here and there before jumping headfirst into our own classrooms, come September.]
“It’s the first day of summer school, and we arrive promptly at 8am to find that there are no classes for us to observe. Correction: there are classes to observe, but not enough (certified) teachers have shown up, and we are asked to act as substitutes instead. We are paired up.
My partner and I are escorted to a 5th grade class, and the day is mostly chaotic. Before we get started, I notice a girl standing off to the edge of the room, and when asked to take a seat, she says she’s too big for the furniture. It’s true, so I give her the chair from the teacher’s desk to sit on, which initiates a waterfall of complaints from other students who want to sit in a big chair, too. It turns out the room is built for 3rd graders, and more than a few students are crammed into chairs and desks that are too small.”
Looking back on this entry, I can see the emergence of what I would soon learn to call ‘the policy-practice gap.’ Here are my observations as a graduate student:
- Having an uncertified, rookie teacher cover a class on the very first day of summer school seems to go against policy, no? The Transitional B certificate, which I and all other alternative certification teachers were given in order to bypass New York State regulations requiring the acquisition of a Masters degree prior to certification, likely contributed to this grey area. While I wouldn’t have been able to teach full time without the certificate, I was not prepared to take on a class on my first day.
- Mismatched bodies and furniture would happen on a recurring basis throughout my years of teaching that would follow. How can students be expected to learn and ‘behave’ if they can’t fit into the seat(s) assigned to them?
- Any brand-new teacher can attest to hearing things like ‘don’t smile till Christmas,’ referring to how important some educators feel it is to appear strong to students. While I have a number of issues with this tacit new-teacher ‘policy’ (and a general inability to not smile at times), there is some truth in making an effort to keep your composure when standing in front of a group of students. And while pairing us up made sense from the perspective of the administration, since few of us had ever stood in front of a classroom before, it sent the message to the class (just like smiling broadly might) that we were nervous/unprepared/new.
More on the ‘policy-practice gap’ to come in future posts.