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The Long Way Home - The Making of a Teacher

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The Long Way Home

"I woke up the next morning with a new sense of clarity. I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I think I always had."

An aspiring teacher sets off in search of a challenge - and finds one

It's Tuesday night, April 26th. Carley Fisher-Maltese has been wearing the same clothes since Sunday. Somewhere along the way, she planned to go back to New Jersey to her house, her husband and five pets. Instead, with her second semester as a Curriculum and Teaching student at Teachers College drawing to a close, she's scrambling to finish her last project. She and four other students are completing a two-year social studies curriculum for their core class. Amid the detritus of a hard night's work - snacks, juice, a pillow and blanket - they talk animatedly about their project.

 "I've designed lesson plans before," Carley says, "but if a lesson plan is a star, this curriculum is the whole galaxy."

Now 31, Carley was making six figures just a few years ago as an editor at investment powerhouse Goldman Sachs. But as she looks over her group's task list scrawled out on a length of paper towel, she's smiling, seemingly right where she wants to be. 

Getting here was never a foregone conclusion. Carley's great-grandparents were all immigrants, Russian and Polish Jews who firmly believed that education was the key to giving their children the best life possible. Carley's mother was a teacher, but she and Carley's father, a doctor, wanted Carley and her sisters to pursue more lucrative careers.

Carley initially followed her father's example, enrolling as a pre-med student at Barnard College. She had completed most of her coursework and was studying for the MCAT when she realized that medicine wasn't for her.
 
Instead, after graduating from Barnard she parlayed her health care knowledge into health-related editing work for Wall Street firms. She did well, climbing the ladder and making a new life with her husband, Jamie, who also worked on Wall Street. But each new rung brought longer hours and a deep-er sense that her work wasn't fulfilling.
 
She and Jamie talked it over, and he urged her to follow her heart even if it meant much less money coming in. For some time, the idea of teaching had been in the back of her head. "I woke up the next morning with a new sense of clarity," Carley said. "I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I think I always had."

After that, things moved quickly. She applied to a number of private schools and landed a job as an assistant teacher at an upscale Montessori elementary school near her New Jersey home. She gave notice at Goldman Sachs the next day.

While she learned the rudiments of teaching and managing her students, Carley still felt unqualified to lead a classroom alone. "I didn't feel the parents should be paying all this money to have me teach their children how to read," she says. If she was going to succeed as a teacher, she knew she'd have to stop working and attend school full time.

She enrolled at Teachers College and immediately took to it. Carley is cerebral and sharp, the kind of student who does extra reading on her own and enjoys linking it to her practice. If anything, her biggest complaint about her first semester was that she wasn't challenged enough by her field placement. She found P.S. 87, a socio-economically diverse elementary school on Manhattan's affluent Upper West Side, very similar to her experience at Montessori. It felt almost too comfortable.
 
On the other hand, she found that her coursework at TC sometimes opened her eyes to truths about her students and herself. Two of her students were black males who left class to meet with other teachers every few days. Carley had assumed they were in need of special education. Instead, she soon learned, one was in the gifted and talented program; he was working with a speech therapist to correct his stutter.

In a paper written for Celia Oyler, Associate Professor of Education in Curriculum and Teaching, Carley analyzed her misperception of the boy as a cautionary tale that revealed her preconceived biases. But to Oyler, there was more to be learned: "I told Carley, 'The way you tell me this story, it seems as though you like the student more now that you know he's more intelligent.'"

It was a lesson that, in different ways, would continue to resonate for Carley during her second semester.

"I Hate These White Teachers"

Carley was stunned. It was February; she had been in her new position at Future Leaders Institute (FLI), a charter middle school in Harlem, for just a few weeks. Had she heard right? The girl in front of her--tall, pretty, usually animated--had been acting up since the day before when Carley had caught her cheating on a science quiz and given her a zero. Now the girl's anger had taken a new direction.

"I was hurt when she said it," Carley says. "I felt she was pulling the race card instead of taking responsibility and saying, -'I was cheating. I was in the wrong.'"

Carley's cooperating teacher--Dan Novak, a 26-year-old ex-scientist--was also white, but none of her students were. Fortunately, a central part of FLI's mission is social justice, and the school has mechanisms to deal with thorny issues like race, including a "social action" course--a half hour set aside at the end of every class for open discussion. In one such session, a student who had told another that she was acting ditzy and superficial--"like a white girl"--acknowledged that the stereotype came from the movie White Chicks.

Now, though, Carley had to decide whether to simply reprimand her student or try to wring something positive from the moment. "I had to step back and deal with it from an unemotional place," she says. 

Carley chose to discuss the matter in private with both the girl who had cheated and the student who helped her. "I stressed the seriousness of cheating and explained to them that when they get to high school and college, this kind of incident will be called -'academic dishonesty,'" she said. 

Other social justice issues afforded more common ground. At one point, spurred by student demand, Dan and Carley got permission from the administration to focus their social action course entirely on the environment. The students completed several projects, from analyzing FLI's recycling project to revitalizing the garden next to the school's playground.

"They even went through the school's trash to see what we were throwing out," Novak says. "It was amazing to see, until we realized that it probably wasn't safe."

As the weeks passed, Carley felt she was making progress at FLI, both in her teaching and her ability to connect with students. Still, she says, "Middle school is a whole new animal." The students were older than any she'd taught before, and she was teaching a full science curriculum, also a first.
 
Perhaps her biggest challenge, though, was developing the inner confidence and assertiveness that constitute "teacher's presence...I grew up learning to be more indirect and polite and less take-charge," Carley says. "You can't really learn that by taking classes. It's not going to happen until I'm in a classroom and it's all me."

As the semester was ending, Carley actually turned down some offers of a Montessori-style team-teaching environment. "I need to develop my leadership skills. I need to be able to not defer to anybody."

She was doing well with FLI's sixth graders, she said, but didn't feel she had control of the older students. "When I finished my first semester, I felt like I had accomplished my goals, but now, it's been hard. My confidence has taken a beating."

The Last Day

It's Thursday, May 5, Carley's last day at FLI. A student was reading a farewell note: "I will truly miss you, but you are always welcomed to FLI no matter what. Good luck, Carley!  I wish you all the best in your future. You can do it! I have faith in you."

Carley felt tears start to well up. The girl reading the note was the same one who had lashed out months before about hating white teachers. The girl read on: "I thought I would dislike you"--the word "hate" had been written and furiously scribbled out--"but I actually loved you as a teacher."

Another student looked at Carley and exclaimed in surprised delight, "She's crying! She's crying!"

Novak and the students had collaborated to make the whole day a massive send-off for Carley. The sixth-graders sang a rap song and performed a skit; the eighth-graders wrote personal messages in a journal, and all the students had brought cards, poems and treats. One student, whose family was on public assistance, gave Carley a glass paperweight with a hand-carved butterfly. The social action class presented her with a tree sapling they'd grown in the school garden.

Carley herself was weary from the daily commute from Princeton to New York. Job hunting had been particularly tough: "It seems like most of the resources at TC are for New York City-area jobs." She wanted to continue working in higher-needs districts, but the schools near her home were mostly affluent and suburban.
 
Her verdict on her time at Teachers College? She feels the courses supplemented her student teaching experiences very well, but believes her age and experience helped her. "Even though I felt I didn't have the tools to lead a classroom, I had taught before I came to TC, and I had a lot of previous life experience. Other students come here right out of college, and sometimes I wonder how they do it. I'm not sure I could have done this at 22."previous page