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Follow-Up: On Teaching Apprenticeships

Ilana Garon

A common thread of this week's roundtable seems to be the importance of "fieldwork" to teacher prep—specifically, spending time in a classroom in an apprenticeship setting, and the mentoring of new teachers by more experienced ones. In many teacher prep programs, this all-too-critical step is lacking; as blogger Kate Mulcahy pointed out, one of the strengths of her program was a good balance of theory and practice, while many programs err on the side of theory with too little time spent in actual classrooms.

My own program, NYC Teaching Fellows, required trainees to teach summer school for six weeks under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Mine was a five-foot-tall, middle-aged woman who had been teaching 20 years; despite her diminutive stature, she maintained a sort of Machiavellian control over the class. The kids simultaneously loved her enthusiastic explanation of homoerotic undertones in John Knowles' A Separate Peace, and feared her propensity for giving low grades on essays, and for marking absent any students who weren't paying attention. Her no-nonsense reputation caused the students to inform her, laughing, that the novel's protagonist should be punished for pushing his best friend out of a tree by being made to sit through her summer school class.

I now recognize that my time under this woman's wing was by far the most useful aspect of my training; the six weeks I spent in her class were all too short. Further, summer school students were a relatively cooperative bunch by nature; if they even bothered to show up, it meant someone at home cared enough about their passing English to insist that they came, homework in hand, to those un-air-conditioned Bronx classrooms during the months of July and August. Having only co-taught for six weeks, and to particularly obliging students at that, left me insufficiently prepared for managing my own rowdy classes in the fall. I loved my "apprenticeship" training; I only wished there had been more of it.

Ilana Garon has been teaching high school English (and math, in emergency situations) in the Bronx since she graduated from Barnard College in 2003. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and Dissent Magazine

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