May 10, 2011

New to Teaching, Idealistic, at Risk for Layoff

Original article in the New York Times by Fernanda Santos

Samantha Sherwood had lofty aspirations when she settled on a family-studies major at the University of Connecticut, like redrawing welfare rules or weaving together a sturdier safety net for people in need. She figured that she could change the world in big, broad strokes, and that she might pick up a fancy title and ample salary along the way.

Instead, Ms. Sherwood, 25, joined up with Teach for America, the program that puts top college graduates into the nation’s most poverty-stricken schools, deciding that the best way to make a difference would be, as she put it on Monday, “to be there, where the rubber meets the road.”

The world she is poised to change is a science classroom at a middle school in the South Bronx filled with sixth graders who seem as eager to hear her tell them about the whims of the weather as she is to listen to their tales of teenage crushes and broken hearts.

Now in her third year of teaching, earning about $45,000, Ms. Sherwood has come face to face with another place where rubber and road meet: she is most likely among the 4,100 New York City teachers scheduled to be laid off under the budget Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg unveiled on Friday.

Because state law dictates that the last teachers hired must be the first let go — with a few exceptions for those hard-to-find teachers in subjects like special education and English as a second language — many of those who will be laid off if the budget is approved by the City Council are young idealists like Ms. Sherwood, whom the mayor and like-minded reformers had rallied to some of the city’s most challenging classrooms.

“My own kind of ideology, my own commitment to have an impact in the world in some capacity, makes me more inclined to work hard to see my kids do well,” Ms. Sherwood said.

Teachers who come to the city through special programs like Teach for America or the New York City Teaching Fellows are susceptible to layoffs like anyone else, but people speaking for the programs said most of them were safe because their jobs were the ones the city had most difficulty filling, and thus held high-needs licenses (Ms. Sherwood has a general-education elementary license). According to a model the city prepared in February, all but a few hundred of those slated for layoff will have taught fewer than five years; about 650 of them are in their first or second year.

In a memorandum sent to the schools on Tuesday, Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott ordered a freeze on all personnel transactions, including requests for license changes and changes to service history that might affect seniority.

If Ms. Sherwood is typical of these teachers, she could also be a symbol for those, including Mr. Bloomberg, who are lobbying to repeal the state law, known as last in, first out. Bright, motivated, capable — 72 percent of her school’s students have scored at the proficient level in state science exams since she was chosen to run its science department in 2009 — she said she had been hoping to get tenure at the end of June and make a career in the city schools, but now is unsure.

Most of all, she wants to be judged on performance, not time on the job.

“I’ve gotten nothing but satisfactory reviews, the school’s administrators want me to work for them, I’ve demonstrated I’m effective in the classroom,” Ms. Sherwood said. “The reality of it is,” she added of more experienced teachers, “there are people out there who just got settled in and aren’t doing their jobs.”

The school where Ms. Sherwood works, Mott Hall V, on East 172nd Street in the Soundview section, is typical of those that would be hit hardest by the cuts. It is relatively new (it opened in 2005), and its staff is made up primarily of junior teachers; the principal, Peter Oroszlany, said 60 percent of them had spent five or fewer years in the classroom.

Virtually all of Mott Hall V’s 378 students are black or Hispanic; 87 percent are poor enough to qualify for the free lunch program. Nearly 1 in 5 do not speak English at home, and about the same number require special education services. Still, the school ranks No. 1 in math scores among middle schools in its district, and it received an A on the city’s progress report this year.

On the first day of school each fall, Ms. Sherwood makes a pledge to her students: “I guarantee that if you let me guide you and if you work hard, you’ll leave this class knowing more about science than you did when you arrived.”

Her approach is a mix of drilled discipline and freedom to be creative. She works Saturday mornings to help students prepare for the state’s standardized tests, and next month, one-third of the school’s eighth graders will take the science Regents exam, a requirement only in the ninth grade.

“Any step up they can take, any leg up we can give them, it’s worth the extra effort,” she said. “Their peers in the public schools in Chappaqua are getting all of those opportunities, and there’s no reason my kids in the Bronx shouldn’t.”

Ms. Sherwood also led the charge to redo the school’s science curriculum, focusing instruction in each grade on one topic, like earth or life sciences. She is helping to start the school’s first newspaper. In class, she pushes the students to take ownership of the material, encouraging them to frame lessons as they like: last year, one group turned a presentation on how the planets influence the seasons into a newscast; another made it a music video.

“We have to let children explore the beauty of what they’re learning,” she said, “not spoon-feed knowledge they’re supposed to memorize.”

Ms. Sherwood called layoffs “a Band-Aidfix” for the city’s budget problems, but said that if they were necessary, performance should decide who got to stay and who had to go. Last year, she joined Educators 4 Excellence, a group of teachers who advocate for merit-based pay, an evaluation system that takes into account students’ test scores, and the strengthening of tenure requirements.

As news of the impending layoffs began to sink in, Ms. Sherwood found herself thinking back to her college graduation, when some of her relatives told her she was too smart to become a teacher, as opposed to, say, a doctor or an engineer.

“Didn’t they all need teachers,” she noted, “to learn what they needed to do their jobs?”