The subway ads promise inspiration, fulfillment, and the kind of career satisfaction rarely found in an office cube. “Your spreadsheets won’t grow up to be doctors and lawyers,” one gently chides. “You remember your first-grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?” asks another.
The posters are an effective lure for enticing dissatisfied corporate professionals and idealistic college grads to apply for the New York City Teaching Fellows program. Set up in 2000 as a collaboration between the city and the nonprofit New Teacher Project, the program aims to address the city’s chronic teacher shortage, epecially in hard-to-fill areas like math, science, and special education. It offers a subsidized master’s degree in education and a quick on-ramp to a new career. This year, nearly 20,000 would-be educators from across the country applied.
But recent fellows warn aspirants not to fall for the gauzy sales pitch. Recounting their initiation into leading a classroom, the novice teachers describe a scene that’s more Full Metal Jacket than Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Seven weeks of crash-course training and summer school student teaching, they say, is no preparation for the realities of city classrooms.
“The year before I came, the kids set three or four fires in the school,” recalls one fellow about to enter her fifth year of teaching first and second graders. “You’re prepared that some of the kids aren’t going to listen, but not for the things they’re going to do—like throwing desks across the room. I had a kid taken away in an ambulance my first year because he just flipped out and was ramming into the door.”