Molly Shabica became a teacher in New York City schools in 2002. She majored in biology as an undergraduate and took a series of physics and chemistry classes as well, setting herself up for a range of career options besides teaching. At first she focused on research, but she found herself becoming invested in the idea of working with teenagers rather than in a lab.
Nearly 15 years later, Shabica remains committed to her students and life as a teacher. Despite the lure of more money elsewhere and less emotional stress, in a city where other career prospects are numerous, Shabica isn’t planning to go anywhere.
She counts a supportive administration as a factor in her job satisfaction and says a Math for America fellowship has been a big piece of what has kept her in the classroom. The Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship — open to mid-career math and science teachers — has given her $15,000 per year for the last four years and access to about 130 different courses per semester on content and pedagogy in her field.
Besides the professional learning opportunities and the stipend, Shabica said the level of respect she is granted as a master teacher has been an important benefit of the fellowship.
“It really just made it so much easier for me to say yes, this is what I want to do, and right now I can say this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Shabica said.
A report about the nation’s teacher shortage by the Learning Policy Institute identified attrition as a major contributor to the problem. While Finland, Singapore and Ontario (Canada) lose 3-4% of their teaching force each year, the United States loses 8%, on average, and early-career teachers leave at higher rates, along with those who teach in high-poverty districts.
Megan Roberts, executive director of Math for America, says her organization prides itself on its low attrition rate among master teachers in New York City — 3.9%. In New York City public schools more broadly, 14.5% of teachers who started in the 2013-14 school year were gone within their second year and one-quarter of teachers who started in the 2011-12 school year left by year four, according to data analyzed by the United Federation of Teachers.
“These numbers are actually even larger when you talk about STEM in urban sectors like New York City,” Roberts said. “Our attrition rates are staggering in New York.”
The master teacher fellowship through Math for America serves about 800 teachers, and it has reached a significant portion of the city’s math and science teachers since its inception. Master teachers take and lead sessions throughout the year, with about half of courses being taught by teachers and the other half being taught by experts in the field. The fellowship is renewable after the first four-year term and many, like Shabica, reapply.
Teachers have to have been in the classroom teaching math or science for four years to be eligible for the fellowship. Instead of focusing on new teachers and grooming them, the Math for America Master Teacher Fellowship celebrates those who have already proven their excellence. Master teachers are expected to attend seven workshops throughout a fellowship year but some take as many as seven times that.
One workshop that sticks in Shabica’s mind as particularly helpful was led by Fordham University assistant professor Rhonda Bondie, who focused on engaging every student in a classroom. In the workshop, Bondie demonstrated her methods, giving teachers concrete examples of how to get kids talking to each other and strategies for engaging all students despite large class sizes.
Another was led by a current master teacher from The Bronx High School of Science. His workshop gave Shabica new ideas for integrating primary sources into the science classroom — a challenge because so many academic journals use language that can be inaccessible to high schoolers.
While the fellowship doesn’t require anything of Shabica’s school — the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School — and she isn’t technically required to do anything more than attend her seven workshops per year, Shabica tries to be a good ambassador for Math for America and take on leadership positions in her 11th and 12th grade school team.
Even though the fellowship means doing extra work, Shabica comes back to the idea of respect. She has appreciated the fact that Math for America celebrates and trusts teachers.
“It gives us the support that teachers need,” Shabica said. “It helps to motivate us, it helps to even think outside the box. In many ways I would say it sustains us in a city and also in a profession that sometimes is a very challenging one.”