RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. The Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, Michele Rhee, is not running the nation's biggest school system, but she gets a lot of attention because it's the nation's capital, because it's a troubled school system, and because she's doing a lot to shake it up. She's pursuing several plans, and one involve recruiting young, motivated teachers who did not necessarily train to be educators.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez has spent time with some of these new teachers and has this report.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Twenty-two-year-old Meredith Leonard is a sixth-grade English teacher at Shaw-Garnet-Patterson Middle School.
Ms. MEREDITH LEONARD (Teacher): Do you guys remember what grimace means?
SANCHEZ: Leonard is what school reform experts call a new breed of teacher, mostly 20-somethings fresh out of college, who may not have majored in education but are drawn to teaching. Many are receptive to the changes that D.C. Chancellor Michele Rhee is proposing, like merit pay and doing away with tenure. All good ideas, says Leonard.
Ms. LEONARD: Obviously what was going on in the past with the system wasn't working, and she was, you know, introducing something very different, and she wasn't taking no for answer. If you were not teaching, then you were out. And I just liked that. I liked the idea of personal accountability.
SANCHEZ: It's all about change now, says Leonard. It's the reason she wanted to teach in D.C.
Ms. LEONARD: I want to think I'm part of this change, but I really can only speak for myself.
SANCHEZ: Actually, Leonard speaks for many young teachers who've poured into D.C. in the lat two to three years. Like many of them, she grew up somewhere else, on a farm in New Jersey. She attended Catholic schools all the way through college.
Ms. LEONARD: And I hadn't even thought of being a teacher. I was one of those people who really didn't know what they wanted to do, but I liked it. I liked being around the kids. They were funny, they're very bright. People don't give them enough credit.
SANCHEZ: Leonard says she's found her calling. It's her first year, but she exudes confidence. Her classroom walls are plastered with rules — Behavior Warning, reads one poster. She's organized. She's stern, but never screams. She likes to say cool, awesome, totally. She's engaging, even funny.
Ms. LEONARD: I mean, I do the robot in the middle of the floor. Yesterday, we looked up the history - or not yesterday - a couple of days ago we looked up the history of the Twinkie.
(Soundbite of bell)
SANCHEZ: That's the bell. Time for this class to go. But if it was up to these kids, they'd spend the whole day with Leonard.
Ms. LEONARD: Go to class.
Unidentified Child: Do I have to?
Ms. LEONARD: You do. You go learn things.
Unidentified Child: Can I go with you?
Ms. LEONARD: No. Go to class. Go, go, go. Go to art.
SANCHEZ: Leonard's sixth-graders have made remarkable progress this year. This particular class is 100 percent proficient in reading, according to the latest test scores. Most of these kids are growing up poor in some pretty tough neighborhoods, but Leonard doesn't believe poverty is an excuse for kids not learning.
Ms. LEONARD: To say that because, you know, they have a really bad home life they're unable to read a book and figure out what the theme is, I think that's very unfair.
SANCHEZ: But how can you ignore some of the abuse or hardships they face outside school, I ask her. Doesn't that get in the way of their learning? No, she says. It shouldn't.
Ms. LEONARD: And maybe it's because I am a first-year teacher; maybe I'm not jaded yet. But that's just always been my opinion on it.
SANCHEZ: Does that mean the longer you teach the more jaded you get? I ask. Not necessarily, says Leonard.
Ms. LEONARD: There is a difference. You can't pretend there's not a difference between the new teachers and the teachers who have been in the system for a long time. It's just different.
SANCHEZ: And that difference, reform experts say, is what Chancellor Michele Rhee is trying to reconcile as she moves aggressively to remake the city's teacher corps.
Mr. RICK HESS (American Enterprise Institute): Younger teachers, obviously they don't have as much at stake.
SANCHEZ: Rick Hess is a senior researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. Unlike younger teachers, says Hess, veteran teachers believe they have a lot to lose when people start talking about change.
Mr. HESS: They knew that they were never going to be richly compensated, but they knew that they were going to have steady compensation and steady employment and that one of the understood perks is you get to go to the school you want to be at and teach the classes you want to be in with time.
SANCHEZ: There's a sense among veteran teachers that their rights are slipping away, says Hess. And that creates tension between young and old teachers in a school. Shaw-Garnet-Patterson Middle School though has largely avoided this generational rift.
Mr. BRIAN BETTS (Principal): I didn't look at youth per se as an advantage and I've taken a lot on the chin about that, being accused of being an ageist.
SANCHEZ: That's Brian Betts, the principal. He handpicked the entire faculty when he took over the school last fall. Here, he says, both veteran teachers and young teachers right out of college have something to contribute.
Mr. BETTS: Provided those contributions are all based around student achievement.
SANCHEZ: Betts says most of the young teachers he's hired believe their success should be measured by their students' success. What's unacceptable, he says, is the attitude that goes something like this.
Mr. BETTS: I don't know what happened, I taught it. So if you live in the camp of - I taught it, they didn't learn it, it's on them - then you're not going to survive.
SANCHEZ: And it doesn't matter if you've been teaching one year or 50 years. Still, Betts has gone out of his way to hire young teachers. Of the 35 he hired this year, 28 are rookies. Betts understands, though, that if his school is going to improve, experienced teachers must be the anchors, the mentors to young teachers, like 24-year-old Nicholas Fiorelli.
(Soundbite of classroom)
SANCHEZ: Fiorelli teaches sixth grade math, and seven months into his rookie year he still can't control his students. Especially Andre, the class clown. A chubby boy who loves needling his classmates.
(Soundbite of yelling in classroom)
Mr. NICHOLAS FIORELLI (Teacher): I found that nothing, at least from me so far, works better than pulling out my phone or pointing at my phone and being like I'm going to call your mother and I'm not playing.
SANCHEZ: Fiorelli does call parents during class, even if it means interrupting his lesson plan, which he knows is a mistake.
Mr. FIORELLI: I remember having these moments of writing on the board and just thinking to myself, I am the worst teacher in the world, what am I doing? And I'm outside in the hallway, like, just sitting down, really frustrated, and one of the math's teachers here, teaches eighth grade math, she's listening to what I was saying, she's like, you're not organized enough, the kids aren't organized enough, and that's why your classroom is chaotic.
SANCHEZ: Betts, the principal, says Fiorelli will eventually figure things out.
Mr. BETTS: Nick is a master of student engagement. Already as a first-year teacher he has found buttons to push with kids that make them want to learn.
SANCHEZ: Of course, kids have learned to push Fiorelli's buttons too, which to his credit he's been willing to admit to their parents.
Mr. FIORELLI: I mean, I told them, you know, this is my first year. I'm going to make mistakes, please be patient with me.
SANCHEZ: But Fiorelli doesn't have much time. Patience, after all, is not something Schools Chancellor Michele Rhee is known for. She wants results now. Fiorelli knows he has much to learn, especially from his more experienced colleagues.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.