One day early in the school year, the pre-K students at P.S. 50 on Staten Island were learning how to write their names.
Jeanette Tenantitla Serrano leaned over the tot-sized table to help a little boy navigate the loops and curves of each letter, but the best he could do was fill the page with illegible lines. He had a learning disability and lagged behind his peers.
“I felt bad because he wasn’t understanding as quickly as the other students,” Tenantitla remembered. “I felt like I didn’t understand what I was doing.”
Later into the school year, Tenantitla would be overcome with a much different feeling — pride — when the same boy called out to her as she left the classroom for the day. For him, it was a sign of progress.
“He had never said bye to anyone,” Tenantitla said. But he had made the connection. “He was like, ‘Oh, she’s leaving. You say bye when someone’s leaving.’”
Tenantitla is only a senior in high school at New Dorp on Staten Island. But little moments like these, all pulled from an internship experience, have helped confirm what she always knew: She wants to become a teacher.
Tenantitla is one of 350 students in the Future Teachers Academy, a hands-on program designed to give high school students a taste of what the job entails. The principal there says the academy is in high demand among students.
But across the country, the story is very different. With the economy humming and teachers often at the center of heated political debates, one recent survey found that only four percent of high school graduates want to be teachers. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs plummeted by 40 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to a report by the New York State School Boards Association.
That’s why initiatives like the Future Teachers Academy are so important to schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. She thinks middle and high schools can help turn the tide, and is encouraging them to start clubs and offer electives to get students thinking about teaching.
This year, the city launched nine “Educators Rising” clubs in Brooklyn schools, with students meeting weekly to learn more about what it means to work in a classroom. In addition, every borough has a “teaching” high school like New Dorp. There, students who select the teaching track (as opposed to other offerings like forensic science or culinary arts) take a sequence of electives on topics like classroom management, building a lesson plan and early childhood development.
“This is my pet interest right now,” Fariña recently told Education Dive. “If we don’t expose kids to what the beauty is of working and teaching someone something, we’re going to miss [out] on this opportunity.”
Getting students excited about teaching is more than a lofty goal — it’s essential. Across the country, school districts are struggling to find teachers, with some throwing millions of dollars into recruitment efforts and others scrambling to waive certification standards.
The city employs more than 76,000 teachers across the five boroughs, with about 6,000 hired annually. In one year alone, the Department of Education received almost 17,000 applications, according to figures provided at a recent City Council education committee hearing on teacher retention and recruitment.
Yet, despite the crush of applicants, not every classroom vacancy is filled. New York City faces a hiring crunch in 13 different subjects or certification areas this school year, including bilingual and special education, as well as middle- and high-school science. That’s according to a listing of teacher shortages by location and discipline published by the U.S. Department of Education.
Meanwhile the number of New York City teachers who resigned in 2015 was 38 percent higher than the number who resigned in 2010, according to the United Federation of Teachers. And Teach for America recruitment in New York City is at its lowest point in more than a decade.
The city and state, along with local colleges and universities, have dedicated considerable effort to preparing, hiring and retaining more teachers. NYC Men Teach recruits male teachers of color, who currently make up only 8.5 percent of the teaching force. Through NYC Teaching Fellows, the city trains recent grads and career-changers to become educators.
State and city initiatives, such as “Teachers of Tomorrow” or the “Master Teacher” program, aim to keep educators in the classroom by boosting paychecks — by $20,000 per year in some cases — for working in high-needs schools or becoming a coach to fellow teachers.
At New Dorp High School on Staten Island, there’s a different tactic at work: Getting young people excited early so they’ll one day enter the field. Principal Deirdre DeAngelis said the Teachers Academy, which incoming students can request to join, is almost always full.
“I hear from seventh-graders, ‘Please, please, please save me a seat. There’s nothing more I want to do in my life other than be a teacher,’” she said. “This cycle of cultivating our own teachers is really remarkable, because you get to mold really solid, confident, prepared teachers.”
Before sophomore year, Toni Ann Wade wasn’t convinced that she wanted to become a teacher. Then she took a “teaching methodology” course with teacher Dianne Esposito. Esposito spends a good deal of time emphasizing the importance of building student-teacher relationships — and models that by building them with her own students, whom she calls her “children.”
After realizing the impact she could have, Wade’s mind is now set on becoming a teacher.
“It made you see the other side of teaching. It’s not paperwork. It’s relationships,” she said. “Someone could see my name on a [class] schedule and get excited … It’s cool to think you could be that person one day.”
Not every aspect of teaching is so rewarding, the New Dorp students learn. Sure, there’s summer vacations. But Frank Guglielmo, who teaches a “Foundations in Education” elective, makes sure his students get a taste of the hard work that comes with delivering an effective lesson.
Over the course of six months, Guglielmo leads students through reading a popular book, picking a chapter to teach, drafting a lesson plan and then, finally, presenting it to their classmates.
“Getting up to teach a lesson is actually quite challenging for some kids,” Guglielmo said. “Preparation is paramount, and we cover that in so many ways.”
Chamald Martin, a junior, didn’t realize how tough the job could be until he learned the planning that goes into standing in front of a class for 45 minutes and, as he puts it, saying something that makes sense.
“I thought it was overnight — you did it before you went to sleep. You gave the lesson the next day,” he said. “That’s what I thought.”
Perhaps the most valuable part of the program comes senior year, when students take on internships in local elementary schools. In college-level teacher preparation programs, aspiring teachers often wait until well into the program to spend significant time in a real classroom.
New Dorp’s approach of starting early is beneficial, said Deirdre Armitage, a director at the College of Staten Island School of Education.
“It exposes them quite early to whether or not they want to be teachers,” she said. “We have students — they have two, three years of the program, and then when it comes time for student teaching they’re like, ‘I don’t know if I really like this.’”
For New Dorp senior Tenantitla, the experience brought the opposite reaction. Working with students has provided reassurance that she’s on the right path.
“When I see them do something they didn’t think they could, it’s rewarding,” Tenantitla said. “I just like seeing them ‘get’ something.”