Pair of aces

Senior and newer teacher team up to deliver a great education

Students with UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford.Miller PhotographyStudents show UFT Vice President for Elementary Schools Karen Alford one of their source books on the rainforest, with Chapter Leader Gordon Prostick (rear) and co-teacher Valerie Curtis (left).

Tucked away on a back street in East New York, Brooklyn, is a wonderful, warm small school at PS 273 that I recently encountered. It felt like a community school from the old days. In the library, I spoke with Ms. Silver, a retired bookkeeper and community member who has been volunteering there for more than 14 years.

Then my student escorts proudly walked me through the school’s hallway, which they had transformed into a rainforest, filled with plants and animals. I received a science course refresher — the forest floor, the understory layer and the canopy layer. It was all coming back to me. 

This rainforest was created by a 3rd-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class, and combined all the subject areas — reading, writing, science, social studies, math and art. They even managed to display a 100th Day monkey exhibit.

How it was created is a great story, too: the Integrated Co-Teaching class is taught by a veteran teacher in her 24th year, Valerie Curtis, and a newer teacher in his fourth year,  James Bitts. 

Students Tara and Jamilea are fully absorbed as they paint a river running throuMiller PhotographyStudents Tara and Jamilea are fully absorbed as they paint a river running through the rainforest.

Like teachers everywhere, they were used to having their own classrooms, where each made all the rules and decided on their own teaching strategies and styles. Neither teacher had had co-teaching experience before. Would they like it? Would they even get along? 

“It was unexpected,” said Bitts, who in his four years of teaching at PS 273 has bounced from 2nd grade to 4th grade to 5th grade and now to this 3rd-grade Integrated Co-Teaching class, as other teachers were excessed due to budget cuts. “Every year has been starting over for me,” he said. 

“It was a position we were both thrown into,” said Curtis, a special education teacher who worked most recently as a social studies cluster teacher. 

It could have gone either way, but they have found success in the pairing.

“It’s really been a great year,” Curtis told me. “When you’re working with someone else, you have to learn how to be a partner and make decisions together; no one person can be in control.”

They have been able to meld their different styles and find their groove. They watched each other and learned from each other. They used various models for the class — sometimes taking turns teaching, sometimes co-teaching. 

They rely on each other’s strengths. Curtis, according to Bitts, is “into arts and hands-on learning for everything.” Bitts says he stays focused on the curriculum, keeping them on task. Together, they have achieved a balance.

Now, we all read a lot about the need to eliminate seniority layoff protections these days, coming directly from our mayor, who talks about jettisoning what he calls “last in, first out” for the good of the schoolchildren.

The campaign to change the layoff rules has morphed into an attack on seniority for some policymakers, who portray experience as a negative.

The 3rd-grade rainforest crew at PS 273, with co-teachers Curtis (left, in blue)Miller PhotographyThe 3rd-grade rainforest crew at PS 273, with co-teachers Curtis (left, in blue) and James Bitts (next to her) proudly display their work. Joining them are teacher Ina Babb (far left), literacy coach Kevin Ray (rear, center) and Alford.

Yet when you hear compelling stories like this one, you realize that we need all kinds of teachers, with all kinds of experience, in our classrooms. A range of skills and experience brings strength and balance to a school. 

I think some of the educrats out there don’t realize that. 

When we lose 50 percent of our teachers within their first six years, that makes me think that instead of this “Last In, First Out”  debate, we need to turn the conversation to how we attract and retain our good teachers. 

As the special education regulations change, we’re going to see more and more Integrated Co-Teaching classes, with more people finding themselves in the same situation as these two teachers, put together and told to “make it work.” 

To listen to Curtis and Bitts talk, you can see that they’ve brought a challenging class a long way. They have a level of professional respect for each other which is so obvious. You just know the students in their class are doing better because they have these two teachers. 

That is something we all can learn from.

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