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Aaron Regunberg: A Rhode Island Teaching Fellow Speaks Out

Friday, August 03, 2012

 

This week Rhode Island got a bit of attention when education historian Diane Ravitch posted an email on her blog that she’d received from Theresa Laperche, a former participant in the Rhode Island Teaching Fellows program. This program, a partnership between RIDE and Michelle Rhee’s New Teacher Project (TNTP), is a Teach For America-like alternative teacher certification program that recruits individuals with no education experience, gives them five weeks of training, and places them in a high-need urban school. This is a model that I’ve long questioned, but I had no idea just how problematic the program was until I read Theresa’s account of her time as a Teaching Fellow.

I decided to call her up myself to learn more about her perspective on the program. Theresa began by telling me why she applied to become a Rhode Island Teaching Fellow in the first place. “It sounded great, at the beginning. They have all this rhetoric about helping every student succeed, about equality. I’ve wanted to become a teacher since Hurricane Katrina—seeing all that destruction, it made me realize I want to help children. So you hear all their jargon about closing the achievement gap, and I guess I fell for it.”

“And I fit the profile for it,” she continued. “I don’t have any education experience, which is actually a requirement of the program. You’re disqualified if you have six credits in education.” Theresa sighed. “I think now that this is because they don’t want to have anyone who actually knows anything about education who can tell them how bad their system is.”

One of Theresa’s biggest problems with the program was the particular pedagogy it pushed onto its Fellows. “You get in there, and right from the first week it’s all about teaching you this militant kind of behavioral control techniques. How to order students to sit down, to repeat themselves, how to pound in your authority. I figured we’d go over lesson plans, or things of that nature. But we didn’t receive any actual training in those areas, just assignments. And more and more militant techniques.” In Theresa’s email to Ravitch, she described this training in greater depth, writing about videos they watched of these tactics: “Students are drilled on how to line up, hands by side, mouths closed—told which way to turn and what muscle to move next. They are instructed like they are in the military or prison. All the kids in the videos are of course black.” Creepy.

But Theresa’s most serious complaint about the Rhode Island Teaching Fellows had to do with its timeframe. “After one week of the program—just one week—we were assigned to teach a summer school class at Central High School for Providence public school students who needed to make up credits. Well, I had no idea what I was doing. We were supposed to utilize the program’s techniques, so I was up there, telling these students to look at me, to sit down, to do it again. But I didn’t know how to teach, I hadn’t been taught how to teach, so I know they weren’t learning anything. There was a real Providence public school teacher in the room. And he told me he had no idea what this ‘Stepford Wives’ thing we were supposed to be doing was all about. He wasn’t supposed to do any teaching, but for the sake of all those kids I hope he takes over that class.”

“After the third day,” she continued, “six of my students were gone. I don’t blame them—what were they learning? I feel like I owe those students an apology, for being up there with no experience.”

Theresa wasn’t the only Fellow to share these concerns. In fact, four dropped out before her. “I remember this one guy was talking about how he didn’t believe in these techniques, how it felt like he was teaching these kids to go to prison. He said he was going to teach in his own way. I didn’t see him the next day.” In the end, she quit as well.

What is comes down to, in Theresa’s mind, is a lack of respect for low-income students. “This whole program is seemingly founded on the need to give these kids a good education by giving them a good teacher. But it feels to me like they’re just looking for teachers to replace the teachers that they’re firing, who have too much seniority. Because this is not the way to make an effective teacher. We were cramming one year of necessary training into five weeks. How can you expect us to be as good? So we’re gonna be in the school system for a year to trample on these kids, and while we try to play catch up and learn what in the world we’re doing, we’re subjecting them to our lack of teaching experience. And then, after we’ve done our year in a high-need school, we’re going to leave. Nearly everyone I spoke to in the program said they’d try to do their year and get the certificate and then get out of the high-need schools.”

The picture Theresa paints is a pretty damning one. So it’s important to have a few qualifiers here. Obviously, this is the perspective of one participant in the Rhode Island Teaching Fellows, and we shouldn’t make too many assumptions from just one perspective. The organization undoubtedly has some success stories of folks who went through it and went on to be very effective teachers. But, at least according to Theresa’s experiences, this is not the norm, but rather the exception. That’s a troubling thought.

And I would argue that this incident points to a much more fundamental flaw in this kind of “education reform” model, which seems to be operating under the misconception that there is a shortage of qualified teachers in Rhode Island. To be clear, there is no general teacher shortage in Rhode Island—when municipalities across the state are laying off teachers, and when folks coming out of grad school with master’s degrees in teaching are finding it impossible to get a job, I think that’s pretty clear. There may be shortages in certain areas, like bilingual education and physics. And I would certainly agree that in some districts we need more teachers of color and more teachers who can effectively communicate with the communities they serve. But you don’t get that by throwing inexperienced and untrained individuals in front of students who need—among many other things—high quality instruction from a real, dedicated teacher.

Theresa, I’m happy to say, has decided to go back into the teaching field by obtaining a master’s degree in teaching, spending a year preparing, and committing to education for the long haul. I can only hope that others in Rhode Island listen to Theresa’s experience, and prioritize the training of the real, experienced, life-long educators that our students deserve.
 

 

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