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The Big Apple Corps

You're young, idealistic and fresh from two years of Peace Corps service in, say, Mauritania. Teaching in a New York City public school shouldn't be too hard, right?

Maybe . But consider the scenario posed recently to the newest crop of trainees in the Peace Corps Fellows - a TC program that fast-tracks returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in the city's schools:

You've just started teaching. You share a classroom with Mr. Johnson, a 20-year veteran who frequently "borrows" your supplies and doesn't let you use his blackboard, even though he hasn't changed it since the Reagan era. Now it's the day before your students are to present shoe-box dioramas that explain themes from Down These Mean Streets, and the shoe boxes are missing. What to do?

"You guys have your work cut out for you," guest lecturer Peter Dillon told a room full of youthful Fellows one steamy morning this past July. Dillon, Principal of Heritage School in East Harlem, is a TC alumnus and former Peace Corps Fellow who taught in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, just after the riots there. "This training will help you, just like the language and sensitivity training you got in the Peace Corps. But on the ground, it's the same: you thrive by figuring out the culture."

Tough stuff - but it's de rigueur for new trainees.

"Urban teaching is quite a contrast from teaching overseas," says Reed Dickson, the program's director. "In Namibia, I was called 'Metiri,' a term of great respect, which means both 'elder' and 'teacher.' On my first day, the students stood when I entered class. In New York, you have to stand by the door and ask them to come into your classroom. You can't expect respect until you've earned it."

Dickson says he "almost tries to scare applicants away, because we want teachers who will commit to urban education. Fortunately, we're pretty successful. Last year, we lost only one out of 38 first-year Fellows."

The Fellows are well-prepared by the time they walk into their new classrooms. During summer boot camp, they log over 50 hours of classroom observation and 140 hours of intensive classroom management training, during which they visit city school administrators and hear weekly talks by visiting speakers.

"Your mindset has to be 'it's all about the kids,'" this year's group was told by former Fellow Elmer Myers, a Regional Instructional Specialist for 13 schools in the Bronx. "If it isn't, you'll struggle. If it is, everything will eventually fall into place."

In spring 2005, the TC Peace Corps Fellows program will mark its 20th anniversary. New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein is expected to join the celebration, along with other city and state officials. The program - the first of its kind - will be saluted for its alumni, whose ranks now include superintendents, principals and assistant principals, as well as many former Fellows still teaching. It can also claim credit as the model for 35 sister programs around the country.

"The Peace Corps itself is dedicated to three goals," Dickson says. "One is to teach other countries about the U.S. when you're serving overseas. Another is to teach the U.S. about other cultures after returning. The third is to keep serving until we're no longer needed. As with Peace Corps countries, New York City's teaching needs are substantial-so we're going to keep working to expand our impact."

Meanwhile, today's Fellows grapple with more immediate challenges.

"The sad thing is, those cool shoe-box dioramas? They're gone. Crushed. In the dumpster," Dillon said at the end of his talk. "And that's a shame. But you can learn from the experience and get stronger. Find the like-minded, optimistic teachers and sit with them at lunch or in the lounge. And if you can't negotiate with Mr. Johnson, find an overhead projector, pull a screen down over his board and teach your lesson."

A student raised her hand. "And find a cabinet that locks."

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