Teachers Do The Talking
New Haven Independent
When Obama’s top school official came to a city turnaround school, he popped a question: How do we get more Tamara Raifords “clamoring” to teach in low-performing schools?
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (pictured) heard several answers directly from New Haven teachers as he took part in a discussion Tuesday morning at the Brennan/Rogers School in West Rock.
Duncan didn’t come to town to give a speech. He played the role of interviewer in a 90-minute talk with school staff, students, union leaders and politicians in the school library.
After a full half-hour of congratulations between politicians, mostly focused on New Haven’s 2009 teachers’ contract that paved the way for new teacher evaluations and turnaround schools, teachers were invited to join the conversation in front of a bank of TV cameras.
Tamara Raiford, who teaches pre-K at Brennan/Rogers, introduced herself as the only teacher in the district to leave a top-performing Tier I school to join a low-performing “turnaround.” She joined the school in 2010, as Brennan/Rogers launched a so-called turnaround effort, an experiment designed to reverse a trend of years of poor performance. As the school became the city’s first in-house turnaround, over half of the staff were replaced, and teachers were asked to sign up for a longer school day.
Raiford used to teach 1st grade at Davis Street Arts and Academics School, a top-performing Tier I school. A New Haven native, she became a teacher after working for over 10 years as a paraprofessional.
She said she chose Brennan/Rogers for “the challenge.”
Secretary Duncan listened to her tale and began an interview.
“The start of your statement I think was really profound—that you may have been the only Tier I teacher to make this switch. … How do we as a teaching profession create a climate in which everyone is clamoring to come into schools like this … where this is a badge of honor?”
If we wanted “100 of your colleagues from Tier I schools every single year to say ‘we’ve done a great job here and we want to replicate that work in communities that haven’t been so blessed,’ … what do we need to do systemically to get a whole bunch more folks following the example that you’ve set?”
Raiford replied that her drive stemmed from instructors who inspired her and impressed upon her that teaching was far more than “a job.” She got lured to the job when the district approached paraprofessionals and offered free training at Gateway and Southern Connecticut State University that would lead to teaching certificates.
“No one becomes a teacher to get rich,” she added.
“We’re working on that,” Duncan replied.
Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Dauphinais, a New Haven artist and musician who joined Brennan’s turnaround effort as part of a career change, gave Duncan two concrete answers.
First, she said, beef up teacher preparation programs so that teachers are ready to work in an urban environment. Dauphinais stressed the importance of her own training in urban ed: Before debuting as a co-teacher last school year at Brennan, she spent two years as an intern, working full-time in an urban school setting in South Norwalk. The two years of internships—unusual in the profession—were part of the Quinnipiac University Masters in Art and Teaching program. In addition to working days in a school, she took classes at night.
Dauphinais later said that classroom experience was vital in preparing a new teacher to do turnaround work in New Haven.
A third teacher, Kimberlee Henry, agreed that teachers who are not familiar with urban education are “not ready” for an environment like New Haven.
Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, later picked up on Dauphinais’ point.
“Teachers need to spend a lot more time in the classroom” as part of their training, he said. His remark drew nods of support from the three teachers on the panel.
Right now, most teacher prep programs require only one semester of student teaching, according to New Haven teachers union president Dave Cicarella.
Cirasuolo called for shifting to a “medical school model,” or a “clinical model,” where teachers are tested in the classroom before earning certificates.
Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT), agreed that teachers need preparation for “different kinds of environments,” including urban ones.
Sharon Palmer, head of the statewide AFT, called for bringing back a statewide program called TOPS, or Teaching Opportunities for Paraprofessional Staff, to create a pipeline for more teachers like Raiford. The program was defunded, she said.
“That’s a great point,” replied Duncan, who took over from U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro as the facilitator of the conversation.
Duncan’s visit came as part of the Department of Education’s RESPECT Project, which aims to elevate the teaching profession through conversations that empower teachers to inform policy.
“Despite the fact that teaching is intellectually demanding, rigorous, and complex work, too often American educators are not treated like professionals,” reads a DOE summary of the program. “They typically receive little real-world classroom experience before certification, and once in the profession, they are generally not effectively supported, appropriately compensated, or promoted based on their accomplishments. Too often, teachers find themselves in schools with cultures where inflexible work rules discourage innovation and restrict their opportunities to work together and take on leadership responsibilities.”
Duncan called New Haven’s work on the teacher contract, and its continued collaboration between labor and management, a “success story.”
Teachers “too often get the lion’s share of the blame,” agreed Rep. DeLauro. She said in order to improve the schools, “teachers voices need to be heard.”