Fresh out of college and eager to make a difference, Hannah Sadtler and Derek Roguski joined Teach For America in 2008 and headed into New Orleans public schools along with 300 other corps members.
Sadtler, 28, hailed from Boston, and Roguski, 27, grew up in Tallahassee, Fla.
However, it wasn’t long into their first school year that both found themselves questioning whether they were having the positive impact they envisioned.
After their required two years, the pair stopped teaching to pursue a different role in education and in 2010 founded The New Teachers’ Roundtable.
They said they created the organization as a bridge between new teachers and the community and, according to their website, to provide a space for “open dialogue with more experienced educators and other early career teachers to better understand their role in the complex New Orleans public education system.”
Sadtler and Roguski described feeling a dissonance between what was happening in their classrooms and the dominating media coverage in praise of the city’s educational reform experiment and in particular about the success of the TFA model.
Sadtler described the elementary school she worked at as “a very hectic place.” The school had eight principals over six years, she said.
The teachers didn’t have the resources they needed, Sadtler said, and there was a high rate of turnover. About 90 percent of the teachers had less than five years of experience, with a majority being alternatively certified through TFA or other similar programs, she said.
From the administrators, Sadtler said that instead of a concentration on lesson plans and teaching techniques, there was a far greater focus on whether the students’ uniforms looked precisely as mandated and whether they were sitting in the “learner’s position.” The learner’s position requires having both feet flat on the floor, hands clasped on the desk and eyes on the teacher.
Sadtler said the rules were constantly changing and grew harsher as then year went on. “I felt mainly I was being asked to be a prison warden,” Sadtler said. The school did not employ a social worker, she said.
Roguski was at a different school but had similar disinclinations. “They were not only training kids to be prisoners, but they were training us to be prison guards — telling us ‘They need to walk on the line — it’s good for them,’ ” he said.
Roguski said that in his second year teaching he was assigned to a special education classroom with students who had serious behavioral issues.
“I’m a nice guy. I try to do a good job,” he said. “But I wasn’t prepared or the right person.”
Roguski said that preparing for children who have been through trauma was all but ignored in his training, and his school was shared their social worker and counselor with two other schools.
He grew increasingly discouraged as he watched students “act out in ways that traumatized people do,” only to then get pushed out or expelled from the school, he said.
The environment was not a place he could see himself growing as an educator in the way he envisioned, Roguski said.
“The main thing I saw was a lot of trauma in the students,” he said. “And the trauma was keeping them from learning.”
In 2010, Ruth Idakula and Ashana Bigard approached TFA about holding a workshop for new teachers focused on providing tools for dealing with kids with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sadtler and Roguski attended the workshop.
“We knew several things,” said Idakula, a community activist.
First, that many teachers were from other states, that they did not look like the children they were teaching and that most of the veteran teachers had been fired, she said. And, they knew that Hurricane Katrina had happened.
It wasn’t an illogical conclusion to think that there were things happening in the classroom that were connected to Katrina-related trauma, she said.
Idakula said they wanted to help mitigate the population of kids who were getting expelled from school and then entering the juvenile justice system.
The most eye-opening part of the workshop, Idakula said, was hearing stories from young teachers that revealed how ill-prepared they were for the challenges with which they were presented.
She described the teachers as the “second tier of traumatized victims.” She said she heard “a lot of pain and hurt” from teachers who did not having the coping mechanisms they needed.
When they made the decision to leave teaching, Sadtler and Roguski both said they felt strongly that they needed to learn more about the historical, social, philosophical and political context in which they had been teaching — a task difficult to dedicate time to while working 80- and 90-hour weeks.
Sadtler said she had a dream of the kind of teacher she wanted to be, and wanted to stay in New Orleans, but felt she couldn’t continue without a better understanding of the history and culture.
After the school year ended, they began intensely educating themselves about the pre- and post-Katrina educational landscape.
They attended forums, workshops and read various reports and books. They began to build connections to community activists and veteran teachers.
As they launched the Roundtable, they began hosting monthly meetings to share experiences and generate open and honest dialogue. They have also hosted bi-annual workshops, with plans to expand, Sadtler said.
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