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Two Paths to Social Justice - The Making of a Teacher

Two years ago, when he was leading a wilderness trip for Outward Bound, Alex Elson met Willy, a bright seventeen-year-old who couldn't read. The system had failed him, and I wondered,"What good was I doing?, Alex recalls. Five months later, Alex joined the Social Studies Program at Teachers College. Janeen Richards, 41, had always dreamed of becoming a history teacher, but faced with a tough job market after college, she'd taken her advisor's suggestion and gone to pharmacy school instead. Finally, after 14 years of filling prescriptions in Seattle, Janeen sold her house and car and headed off to Teachers College to join the Social Studies Program.
For a pair of idealistic future social studies teachers, it's location, location location

Two years ago, when he was leading a wilderness trip for Outward Bound,Alex Elson met Willy, a bright seventeen-year-old who couldn't read.

"The system had failed him, and I wondered, 'What good was I doing?'"Alex recalls. Five months later, Alex joined the Social Studies Programat Teachers College.

Janeen Richards, 41, had always dreamedof becoming a history teacher, but faced with a tough job market aftercollege, she'd taken her advisor's suggestion and gone to pharmacyschool instead. Finally, after 14 years of filling prescriptions inSeattle, Janeen sold her house and car and headed off to TeachersCollege to join the Social Studies Program.
 
Socialstudies at TC draws students from a wide range of backgrounds andprepares them to teach a variety of subjects, including history,political science, geography, economics and civics. Yet if there is acommon thread that unites students, it's their heightened idealism anddesire to change the world.
 
"Social justice is at theheart of our program," says Margaret Crocco, Associate Professor ofSocial Studies and Education. Nowhere does that focus play out moresignificantly than in the two full semesters of student teaching TCrequires of its pre-service social studies teachers. It's an experienceTC students often find tests their idealism - and, some believe, theCollege's.

For Alex, 26, Humanities Preparatory Academy, asmall high school in lower Manhattan, offered a good fit.  Hedescribes it as "a haven for students who have previously experiencedschool as unresponsive to their needs"- a place where faculty andstudents are on a first-name basis and share a communal lounge. Thestudent body is diverse, and the school's philosophy is to create a"progressive democratic community." Despite their earlier difficulties,most of the students end up going to college.
 
Duringspring semester, Alex taught European history, focusing onEnlightenment-era political philosophers. The students debated thefiner points of Montesquieu's views on the separation of powers andWollstonecraft's advocacy for women's education. Posters on theclassroom walls blared slogans like "Practices Oppressive to Women" and"Hatching Hierarchies."

"Humanities Prep really reflected mycommitment to social justice," Alex says. Still, his perception is thatTC sometimes falls short of that mark with its field placements. "Herewe are with this mission of educational equity, but I don't see thatmany of our student teachers are going into high-needs orpoor-performing schools."
 
Crocco says that's simplynot so. "Most of our student teachers are in high-needs schools of onedegree or another," she says. "Wherever they do their student teaching,we ensure that teachers work with a diverse student body. But we don'tput our students into the worst-performing schools because we don'tthink chaotic environments provide good spaces for learning to teach."
 
It wasn't always clear to Janeen this past year that she would findthat proverbial "good space." After spending her first semester in thefield at Anderson, an accelerated middle school on Manhattan's UpperWest Side, Janeen headed off to a predominantly African-American highschool in Harlem. The next six weeks tested her classroom philosophies,her personal resilience and ultimately, her commitment to teaching.

"The school was highly regimented," she says. "Teachers were yellingand very confrontational with students." Students were often hostile inreturn, particularly toward the more soft-spoken teachers.
 
"It was so disheartening to plan lessons and teach when studentsrefused to participate and complete their homework," Janeen says. "Andthe other teachers just talked about how the students were failing, asif they'd given up on them."

The last straw for Janeen cameone morning when the school principal asked her where her egg timerwas. The question wasn't metaphorical: other teachers really did useegg timers to enforce the school's policy of strictly-timed lessons.
  
"I am not cooking an egg," Janeen says, her indignation still evident."Each student learns at a different pace, and I need to ensure that Iam meeting every student's needs. Instead, the structure of the schoolseemed set up to have them - and me - fail."

On a visit shemade to Alex's class at Humanities Prep, Janeen saw "this great rapportbetween students and teachers." She realized that "teaching in Harlemwas not the be-all and end-all - there were other scenarios of whatsuccessful inner-city school teaching could look like." She decided toleave her own placement--a rare occurrence at TC--and return toAnderson.

She closed out the spring leading her Anderson classthrough an examination of the causes of the American Revolution. Thestudents presented their research on Washington, Franklin and Hamiltonfrom their laptops, while Janeen's mentor teacher, Michelle Sufrin,contributed an occasional question or suggestion.
 
"'AmI copping out?'" Janeen says she repeatedly asked herself. "I wouldfeel horrible if I only wanted to work with gifted students. I wantedto teach in an urban high school, but if you are in horrible school,then how can you become a better teacher?"

Published Friday, Jan. 21, 2005

Two Paths to Social Justice - The Making of a Teacher

For a pair of idealistic future social studies teachers, it's location, location location

Two years ago, when he was leading a wilderness trip for Outward Bound,Alex Elson met Willy, a bright seventeen-year-old who couldn't read.

"The system had failed him, and I wondered, 'What good was I doing?'"Alex recalls. Five months later, Alex joined the Social Studies Programat Teachers College.

Janeen Richards, 41, had always dreamedof becoming a history teacher, but faced with a tough job market aftercollege, she'd taken her advisor's suggestion and gone to pharmacyschool instead. Finally, after 14 years of filling prescriptions inSeattle, Janeen sold her house and car and headed off to TeachersCollege to join the Social Studies Program.
 
Socialstudies at TC draws students from a wide range of backgrounds andprepares them to teach a variety of subjects, including history,political science, geography, economics and civics. Yet if there is acommon thread that unites students, it's their heightened idealism anddesire to change the world.
 
"Social justice is at theheart of our program," says Margaret Crocco, Associate Professor ofSocial Studies and Education. Nowhere does that focus play out moresignificantly than in the two full semesters of student teaching TCrequires of its pre-service social studies teachers. It's an experienceTC students often find tests their idealism - and, some believe, theCollege's.

For Alex, 26, Humanities Preparatory Academy, asmall high school in lower Manhattan, offered a good fit.  Hedescribes it as "a haven for students who have previously experiencedschool as unresponsive to their needs"- a place where faculty andstudents are on a first-name basis and share a communal lounge. Thestudent body is diverse, and the school's philosophy is to create a"progressive democratic community." Despite their earlier difficulties,most of the students end up going to college.
 
Duringspring semester, Alex taught European history, focusing onEnlightenment-era political philosophers. The students debated thefiner points of Montesquieu's views on the separation of powers andWollstonecraft's advocacy for women's education. Posters on theclassroom walls blared slogans like "Practices Oppressive to Women" and"Hatching Hierarchies."

"Humanities Prep really reflected mycommitment to social justice," Alex says. Still, his perception is thatTC sometimes falls short of that mark with its field placements. "Herewe are with this mission of educational equity, but I don't see thatmany of our student teachers are going into high-needs orpoor-performing schools."
 
Crocco says that's simplynot so. "Most of our student teachers are in high-needs schools of onedegree or another," she says. "Wherever they do their student teaching,we ensure that teachers work with a diverse student body. But we don'tput our students into the worst-performing schools because we don'tthink chaotic environments provide good spaces for learning to teach."
 
It wasn't always clear to Janeen this past year that she would findthat proverbial "good space." After spending her first semester in thefield at Anderson, an accelerated middle school on Manhattan's UpperWest Side, Janeen headed off to a predominantly African-American highschool in Harlem. The next six weeks tested her classroom philosophies,her personal resilience and ultimately, her commitment to teaching.

"The school was highly regimented," she says. "Teachers were yellingand very confrontational with students." Students were often hostile inreturn, particularly toward the more soft-spoken teachers.
 
"It was so disheartening to plan lessons and teach when studentsrefused to participate and complete their homework," Janeen says. "Andthe other teachers just talked about how the students were failing, asif they'd given up on them."

The last straw for Janeen cameone morning when the school principal asked her where her egg timerwas. The question wasn't metaphorical: other teachers really did useegg timers to enforce the school's policy of strictly-timed lessons.
  
"I am not cooking an egg," Janeen says, her indignation still evident."Each student learns at a different pace, and I need to ensure that Iam meeting every student's needs. Instead, the structure of the schoolseemed set up to have them - and me - fail."

On a visit shemade to Alex's class at Humanities Prep, Janeen saw "this great rapportbetween students and teachers." She realized that "teaching in Harlemwas not the be-all and end-all - there were other scenarios of whatsuccessful inner-city school teaching could look like." She decided toleave her own placement--a rare occurrence at TC--and return toAnderson.

She closed out the spring leading her Anderson classthrough an examination of the causes of the American Revolution. Thestudents presented their research on Washington, Franklin and Hamiltonfrom their laptops, while Janeen's mentor teacher, Michelle Sufrin,contributed an occasional question or suggestion.
 
"'AmI copping out?'" Janeen says she repeatedly asked herself. "I wouldfeel horrible if I only wanted to work with gifted students. I wantedto teach in an urban high school, but if you are in horrible school,then how can you become a better teacher?"

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