The Urban Legend

Why we have an English teaching fellow

Eli Gordon

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Marketed with the perks of a paid salary, a comprehensive benefits package, and the chance to apprentice under top-tier high school English teachers, Urban’s English teaching fellow program offers one recent college graduate with an interest in teaching the opportunity to learn in a school environment. The program was created by Jonathan Howland, Dean of Faculty, in 2005 and has employed a fellow every year since.

The English teaching fellow program is “a way to learn how to teach at a really good school where [there is] a teaching pedagogy that’s revolutionary and progressive,” English Department Chair Courtney Rein said.

The program also helps to promote diversity within the ranks of independent school teachers by intentionally seeking out candidates from communities that have not been historically represented in independent schools.

“I don’t know if a white person has ever had the job,” said Howland.

Heidy Rodriguez, the 2017-2018 teaching fellow and recent Vassar College graduate, said that the program “was a great opportunity because it involved having a mentor and still being able to be a teacher for a classroom.”

Throughout the year, Rodriguez has been supported by Rein and the rest of the English department. In the fall trimester, she consistently observed one section of English 2A, as well as classes in other departments, such as math and art. In the winter, she taught one section of class with Rein’s guidance, and she is currently teaching two classes independently.

Rodriguez had never taught a class before winter term of this year. Recalling her first day teaching, she said, “I didn’t know how to stand up and still look at the class, or how to be open. I was overthinking everything.”

Since then, Rodriguez has gained confidence at the front of the classroom. Describing experiences in class, she said that “the first time that I taught the [class], I would say ‘can you please take out a piece of paper?’ Now it’s just ‘take out a piece of paper.’”

Sophomore Asante Spencer (‘20) said that she needed to adapt her learning strategies to fit the teaching fellow’s style. The fellow “was nothing like any other Urban teacher that I’d had,” she said, “I had to adjust my learning style when I went in because I knew it wasn’t going to be like other teachers. I had to infer.”

Additionally, the unique context of an English class made the experience especially difficult for Spencer. “Because a lot of [the class] was focused on how to relate to the world around us, it felt a little inauthentic because the age gap was so small,” she said.

While the program offers a unique opportunity for the fellow, “feedback from students and parents [about the program] has always been equivocal,” Howland said. Using the analogy of teaching hospitals, he said that “when you go to the doctor you don’t want to see a medical resident.”

However, Rein believes that students’ negativity is somewhat undue. “Urban students are really critical of new teachers and new teachers often have to work hard to win them over. It’s just sort of the culture here,” Rein said. As a suggestion, she said “when you’re in a classroom with a teaching fellow you have a unique opportunity to give feedback to a new teacher that will really be taken seriously.”

In response to her experience last term, Rodriguez is working to embrace her youth in her teaching. “At first I thought to look as grandma-like as possible, but that really worked as an impediment to me in the beginning because it’s not who I am,” she said. Additionally, she is working to develop her own style in the classroom. “When I go off-track in terms of lesson plans and actually develop my own stuff and am more creative, I feel like a better teacher because I’m loyal to my own perspective,” she said.

After their year at Urban, teaching fellows tend to continue teaching at other independent schools—some have ended up at San Francisco independent schools such as University and Drew. Rodriguez, like many fellows, is considering becoming a full-time middle school teacher or entering a master’s degree program. While some fellows return to school to get graduate degrees, the “hope is that long-term, they’ll come back to teaching,” Rein said.

“We’re committed institutionally to building great teaching practices for now but also for tomorrow,” Howland said, “the teaching fellow program is a part of that.”

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Why we have an English teaching fellow