The Book of the Week is “Ms. Moffett’s First Year”, by Abby Goodnough, published in 2006. This book raised many controversial education issues, ranging from special education to the curriculum, to the extent to which a teacher should have a relationship with a student.
The story focuses on one Fellow’s trials and tribulations in her first year of teaching. It was the first year of the Fellowship Program (the 2000-2001 academic year), which offered a tuition-free master’s degree (night school), with limitations and restrictions for those accepted. Established teachers were resentful of this perk that new teachers got. Some were still paying off their student loans.
The 40-something Ms. Moffett quit her job as a legal secretary to seek fulfillment changing young lives as a Fellow. She was assigned a class of about 20 first graders at P.S. 92 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a depressed immigrant neighborhood.
There had been federally mandated teaching reforms instituted that year. States received education grant money for buying into various teaching methods, such as “Success For All”. New York liked that method because it had worked for other school districts, and it was tailored for inexperienced teachers. Success For All provided the teacher with a script she was to read verbatim, and the same textbooks for all the city’s schools. The teacher had a pre-fabricated lesson she need not lift a finger planning for.
Throughout the year, several different school administrators observed Ms. Moffett’s teaching. Sometimes she was given contradictory information about what to do in certain situations. In one incident, one student had a strong urge to continue writing a composition when the schedule called for a different subject to be taught.
One administrator criticized Ms. Moffett for letting that student continue to write, and said she should force the student to stop writing– assert her authority. Another administrator told Ms. Moffett it was okay to allow the student to continue writing, as it was so difficult to get students to focus on a particular activity, and this might boost the student’s self esteem.
Ms. Moffett often fell behind the strict schedule dictated by educrats, trying to get the students to behave. Unluckily, she was assigned more unruly students than was usual for a class such as hers. There were about 4 or 5 who could not sit still, had the attention span of flies, and could not learn.
For the first month of school, one student’s parent had to stay in the classroom, lest the student throw a temper tantrum if the parent left her. A few of the kids truly needed special education. However, it was extremely expensive to create a special education class just for these students. Keeping them in a regular class was also expensive– in terms of teaching time taken away from the other students.
Ms. Moffett put in requests to have these students tested for learning disabilities, but her requests were ignored. Instead, by the middle of the year, the students had either moved away, or been transferred to other classes or other schools. Ms. Moffett then got three new students in exchange, who could learn and were well-behaved. This changed the whole dynamic of the classroom. The learning environment was much improved.
School administrators severely criticized Ms. Moffett’s ways in their evaluations, fearing a cutoff of funding from the State Education Department if the school did not follow the standards and practices set by the Department. On the day Department inspectors were to visit P.S. 92, the administrators went into Ms. Moffett’s classroom and pressured her to re-decorate the classroom bulletin boards with student work that would be acceptable to the inspectors. Sometimes teachers even doctored students’ work to make it appear that the students were learning more than they really were.
Deprivation was a major characteristic of many of the students’ home lives. They didn’t get enough attention, enough to eat, enough care in general. Ms. Moffett, an idealist, had a strong desire to help improve the quality of the children’s lives. She did so with one particular child. The school strongly advised against getting involved with children outside of school, not just because there were liability issues. It was unfair to favor one child, when so many others were just as needy of individual attention and did not get it.
Ms. Moffett survived her first year teaching. Despite all of the negative feedback she received from her evaluators, and all the stress she had to endure, she realized that teaching was fulfilling to her. Read the book to find out what happened.