An Interview with Christina Asquith: About “The Emergency Teacher”

Nov 8, 2005 by

Suzi Cottrell
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Senior Columnist EducationNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) You have recently written a book about “The Emergency Teachers” What prompted you to write this book?

Christina Asquith

Literature is a powerful teaching tool. When I started my first year teaching in a low-income, urban school, I searched for books by other new teachers to use as a model for myself. But I couldn’t find anything that was realistic and written by a teacher. So, when my year ended, and I had learned so much, I said, “I have to share this experience with other new teachers so they are better prepared than I was!” This book tackles all the practical questions raised in a new teacher’s first year. At the end, there is a reading guide to help education professors provoke classroom discussion.

As I began the research for ‘The Emergency Teacher’, I realized that I wasn’t alone: tens of thousands of teachers were being sent into the classroom with insufficient training or support and so many of them quit in disappointment. I wrote this book to support them; and also for the students who lose a year of education because they are given an unprepared teacher.

2) What made you decide to leave your career in journalism to become a teacher?

I’d always dreamed of becoming a teacher. At 25 years old, I was very idealistic and passionate about improving the schools, but after 5 years covering education for newspapers I still knew nothing about what conditions were like in the classroom, and I still couldn’t answer simple questions such as: Why are inner city school systems failing and what can be done about it? I’d never find the answer from behind a laptop so I decided to see for myself.

3) Why do you think so many states are hiring “emergency teachers?”

Emergency teachers” are my nickname for “emergency-certified” or “alternatively-certified” teachers. They are teachers who are given less than six weeks of training, who have no classroom experience, no degree in their subject, and who are not required to pass any sort of certification exam to teach.

Some emergency-certified teaching programs started in the 1970s when teacher pay was low, urban schools were in decline and increasing women’s rights gave them access to other careers. The school districts couldn’t attract enough teachers so they dropped their standards and allowed anyone to teach and called them “emergency-certified”.

Today, the main reason states give for hiring emergency teachers is simply “a shortage”, but this is not a good reason. We would have a “shortage” of stockbrokers, too, if we underpaid them and sent them to dilapidated, out-of-control workplaces where they feared for their safety and then suffocated their career goals with bureaucratic red tape. Basically, we have a shortage in places where the job just isn’t very attractive. To respond to this shortage by dropping all standards and requirements is completely shortsighted.

As long as we fund our schools through local property taxes, teacher salary is less in low-income areas. That creates a financial disincentive to teach in the tougher schools. In England, the opposite occurs and teachers are paid more to go into low-income, struggling schools.

We also have an attrition problem. Schools don’t do enough to train and retain the teachers they hire. At my school, about 10 teachers left during the school year and another 8 or so left at the end of the year, including the principal. No one said or did anything to encourage us to stay. Quite the opposite: the feeling was: “Good for you– Get out of here if you can!”

4) What kind of training did you receive before stepping into your first classroom?

I received about 2 days, and the first day was filling out paper work for the main office. The second day this wonderful veteran teacher who is in my book, Ms. Vinitzsky, trained half a dozen or so new teachers in classroom management. She was a very talented teacher. I remember her talking about lesson plans and she suddenly stopped and asked, “You all know how to do a lesson plan, right?” We just looked at her blankly. She looked at the ceiling and said something like, “Lord help us.”

What I wished I had had was real time in a classroom alongside a trained teacher. That’s the best way to learn.

5) Was there any type of support during your first year of teaching?

Officially, I was assigned a mentor, but she was only interested in the money and didn’t really help me. Eventually, I made friends with the successful teachers in the school and they would check up on me and let me observe their classroom and borrow their books. They did this for free and they saved me. Mentoring is not enough, but it is one very helpful component of teacher training.

In general, though, the school principal and the veterans treated the new teachers with resistance and suspicion. It was bizarre. Rather than welcoming us, the sentiment was “she won’t last.” Or “you’re so naïve and you’re a burden.” I once read about these New York City school administrators who, upon learning that their newest teacher had a degree from Harvard University, where rolling their eyes and saying: “oh, great. Any Ivy Leaguer.” This is a crazy. Most law firms and businesses trip fight for graduates from the best university in the country. Yet, urban school administrators think this is a bad thing? I’ll bet most parents don’t mind having their children with a teacher with a Harvard degree.

I was also required to take classes towards my Masters degree at a local university. I went once or twice a week. These classes were very practical and helpful, and they also were a forum to meet other new teachers and support each other.

What was NOT helpful was the one-day in-service training every three months. Those meetings just overload you with wish-lists, and then you forget everything. It’s much more useful to consistently meet weekly, for shorter times.

6) Do you believe that many inner city schools have the same problems as the school in which your first classroom was located?

Yes. I think people would be shocked if they knew about the terrifying conditions in some schools.

7) With so many teachers leaving the profession, what do you think states or school administrations could do to help these teachers have a desire to stay?

1. Train them better. All new teachers should receive student teaching or practice teaching in the classroom with a veteran teacher.

2. Emotionally support new teachers in the classroom. At the very least, encourage them to keep going, look for ways that they are improving and make them feel part of a team.

3. Be honest with new teachers. In my school, administrators forced teachers to lie and cover up the schools problems. We had to pretend there were special education services when there weren’t; and pretend we were succeeding when we were ranked 42 nd out of 42 middle schools in the city. That kind of propaganda breeds cynicism and a loss of hope and drives idealistic new teachers to give up. Let the new teachers be honest about the schools shortcomings.

4. Temper expectations. Too many teachers are given the expectation that they will “change a life” and “save a school” in their first year. Then, they end up feeling like a failure when the school year ends and they haven’t reached these impossible goals. Tell them it takes years to learn to teach because teaching-like medicine, law and art– is an honorable a challenging profession that ought to be respected.

8) How did you turn your classroom around?

My students really wanted a classroom that was under control and productive. The situation spun out of control in the autumn when I didn’t know how to manage them and wasn’t clear on my expectations, and I gave them work that they didn’t understand how to succeed at.

Slowly, I learned how to manage my classroom through implementing procedures that I learned about in “The First Days of School” Dr. Harry and Rosemary Wong.
I also studied the techniques of the school’s most successful teachers by sitting in their classrooms during my prep periods.

9) What did you learn about the teaching profession by joining it?

That a successful school needs a strong principal who has authority over their school and staff.

10) Did your view of teachers change when you became one?

Yes. It’s physically exhausting-I had no idea how tired I’d be!

11. How did your view of the media change?

The education beat is terribly undervalued in the newsroom. Some major newspapers consider it a soft beat, and expect a few nice features a week about new programs. I want them to take if more seriously and feel passionate about it. I want everyone to know what I do: those schools can get better. New York and Washington DC are to major cities that suffered horrible crime and unemployment when I was a teenager in the late 1980s and the conventional wisdom was “oh, this will never get better because poverty is a “vicious cycle”. Well, crime dropped in New York City and DC is in the middle of a massive revitalization and there are building cranes everywhere. Life got A LOT better in both cities and just shows that diseases like poverty and violence can be overcome. I know that one day we will look back at our urban school systems in shock and say, ‘I can’t believe how bad it was.’ I can’t wait to get to that point. I hope I can help us get there. It’s exciting to think about.

12. What recommendations do you have for how reporters could/should change how they cover educational issues?

Cultivate parents and teachers as sources, not just school officials and board members. Open your mind to experiments in education that others call “radical”. Research your beat so you can compare your district to county, state and national.

I keep facts, charts and figures posted all over my walls so I can always compare the school district against others. Most importantly, don’t just report the incident, but try to advance the thinking on the issue. For example, if you are writing about a problem in the school system, seek out school systems that have found solutions to those problems and try to include in your story how they solved the problem.

13. It seems that teachers are asked to “Sink or Swim” in the classroom nowadays. Is this true in all states?

I don’t know what’s happening everywhere, but research done at the National Center for Alternative Certification indicates the number of “emergency” teachers is increasing in most states. At the same time, programs to train such teachers are also getting better.

14. Are teachers simply being asked to do too much? To wear too many hats?

Managing expectations is really critical for teachers. In my reading class I had this one student, Vanessa, who told me she wanted to go to college and be a journalist. She was from a single-parent, low-income home where no one before her had gone to college. In my book I describe how I took her on field trips to Villanova University and visited her home and it became my goal to get her into college. If you read the book, you will see what happens in the end. Let’s just say that I realized I was expecting too much of myself. So many factors influence kids, mostly the example of their parents, so teachers can’t use the ultimate long-term success of their students as a benchmark of their own efforts. My goal should have been much simpler: to get Vanessa to master the material in our reading class. If every teacher just achieved that small goal in their own classes, in the end, we’d produce a student ready to succeed in the world.

For more information on Christina Asquith and The Emergency Teacher, please go to the website: http://web.archive.org/web/20061004000448/http://www.theemergencyteacher.com/.

To purchase the book at an educator’s or classroom discount, buy directly from the publisher at http://web.archive.org/web/20061004000448/http://www.lulu.com/; and search The Emergency Teacher.

 

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