Is there anything more difficult than being a public school teacher in America? Yes, being a math or science teacher in New York City. If you are teaching in New York, you start with the problems that all teachers struggle with: students with behavior problems, demanding parents, apathetic parents, administrative burdens, paltry resources, long hours, and skimpy wages. Many teachers take two jobs just to get by. Then in New York, you can throw into this combustible stew the social issues around inequality, violence, and racism. Add to that the particular obstacles math and science pose for many students.
There are nearly two thousand public schools in NYC with more than a million children. Many teachers have so little money for their supplies that they dig into their own pockets to buy pencils and paper for their pupils. Little wonder that some give up and are lured to Wall Street, where the salaries are many times higher.
What’s the solution? Begin by throwing a party. In the middle of Manhattan in the huge Marriott Marquis hotel on Times Square, about a thousand of the brightest math and science teachers and their partners are gathered, all in evening dresses and tuxedoes, for the annual gala of Math for America. Tonight they have been selected to be put in the spotlight and honored as “master teachers.” On the stage, a math teacher who looks like a rock star enthusiastically breaks into a hip-hop song about his school that could be straight out of the musical Hamilton. A NASA astronaut tells the crowd that she could never have made a spacewalk without the inspiration of her high school teachers.
Everyone here has received a fellowship from the nonprofit Math for America. Its founder is the fabulously rich mathematician, hedge fund manager, and philanthropist Jim Simons. He escaped poverty himself thanks to his own teachers. That’s why it pains him that the American education system is failing. Simons’ goal is to build a professional community for math and science teachers that will help them learn together, gain respect, and restore their confidence. Ultimately, he hopes to inspire them to stay in the classroom by treating them as the professionals they are.
These teachers have been selected for four-year fellowships. Both beginning teachers and experienced teachers, from the smallest elementary schools to the largest high schools, the MfA fellows currently account for about ten percent of all math and science teachers in the city. The selected teachers are given jet fuel — a bonus of between $12,000 and $20,000 per year. Simons also gives them the opportunity to retrain in the latest developments in their profession. He has opened a learning center in the middle of the city dedicated to offering daily workshops, lectures and professional support for the teachers.
“The program is extremely popular,” says Simons, who has paid everything out of his pocket so far. “Ninety percent of the teachers say that they are motivated to continue practicing their profession.” The program has been extended to the rest of New York State, now with the support of the government and other philanthropists.
At the lectern, someone from MfA asks the audience, “Who has been involved since the beginning?” The woman sitting next to me stands up. She emigrated from Haiti 20 years ago. She has been a master teacher at a school in the Bronx since 2004. Tonight she has proudly brought her niece, who stands and claps for her. “The problems in the schools will still be there tomorrow,” the woman says to me as we walk out together on a red carpet. “But the fact that I get more appreciation as a teacher makes a huge difference to me.”
As I leave, I find myself wishing there were similar initiatives for all teaching disciplines, and not just in America. Preferably, the rewards of teaching would not be dependent on charity but given freely as a token of appreciation from all of us. We all need teachers who are happy and respected — whether tonight in their evening dress or tomorrow in front of a roomful of sleepy students.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at email@example.com. She is filling in for Richard K. Rein, who is on assignment.