Kaitlyn Shorrock gave a teary hug to a student—and prepped her kids to adjust to yet another new science teacher—as a turnaround school’s “best” teacher packed her bags after two years on the job.
Shorrock, who’s 24, arrived at Wexler/Grant Community School in 2010 as a novice, admittedly afraid of the daunting task at hand. She came from California as part of Teach For America (TFA), a national not-for-profit that places talented young people into disadvantaged schools. Like many other TFA recruits, she arrived with high ideals, but without a promise to stay for more than two years.
After a quick learning curve in classroom management, Shorrock emerged as a model teacher, the “best” in the school, according to Principal Sabrina Breland.
Shorrock has helped steer the middle school through a transition this year as it launched a “turnaround” effort, an experiment to revamp a low-performing school as part of New Haven’s broader school reform drive. Turnaround principals get to choose their own teachers and give them more leeway to excel.
When the Independent visited her classroom in February, Shorrock was torn between staying for a third year to continue the turnaround or leaving to pursue other goals.
Telling her students the answer wasn’t easy once she made up her mind, Shorrock said. She waited until last Friday, one of the final days of the school year. She told her students that in the fall, she won’t be back at Wexler. She’ll be in Spain.
“What does Spain have that Wexler/Grant doesn’t?” one student asked her.
She explained that she has been accepted into the Fulbright program, which pays for U.S. students to work as teaching assistants abroad.
“It’s an opportunity that I can’t turn down,” she explained.
Shorrock said her end goal is to become the director of education for an aquarium. She wants to do that in southern California, where lots of people speak Spanish. So she needs to work on her Spanish skills.
When they heard the news, her 8th graders “just started crying,” she said. Her 7th-graders, who had expected to keep learning from her next year, were “very mad.”
“That’s stupid,” said one student.
“That’s fucked up, miss!”
One girl “told me she was going to beat me up after school,” Shorrock recalled. The student later returned for a hug.
Shorrock said she knows leaving is the right decision for her career. But it didn’t feel that way as she said goodbye to her students.
“I feel terrible,” she said, holding back tears.
The TFA Dilemma
Principal Breland said Shorrock’s departure “is going to impact us greatly.”
“She was arguably our best teacher in the building,” Breland said. “We’re going to have to really work hard to get somebody who comes close to her.”
Breland said she plans to interview the first candidate Friday for Shorrock’s job.
TFA in general has drawn praise for sending young bright people into schools, and criticism for the trend of many young teachers leaving just as they get their bearings.
Breland said though she’s disappointed to see Shorrock go, she still sees the value in having “someone who can really help students move for two years.”
Shorrock “definitely ranks as the best I’ve seen from TFA,” she said.
Students are “going to be disappointed, because a lot of them like how she runs things in the class,” Breland said, “but they’re resilient.”
“Unfortunately, our students have learned to be resilient and they know sometimes that they are not going to get their teachers back,” Breland said. “It’s something they’ve learned to deal with.”
Another strong TFA teacher, Katie Williamson, is also leaving. She’ll be working at a charter school in New York City. Overall, three teachers are leaving and another two are retiring, creating five vacancies, Breland said.
Breland said hiring more TFA recruits “wouldn’t be my first choice,” but she will consider it. The third TFA recruit at the school, Jane Hosen, is from New Haven and is sticking around. Breland reasoned that local TFA recruits, who aren’t thousands of miles from home, might be more willing to stick with the school.
Meanwhile, Breland said she will “muscle on” and continue to grow as a supervisor and make sure the school is a place where teachers want to stay.
If we “make it as attractive as possible,” she said, “I think we have the chance of holding on to them.”
“You Won’t See Me Later”
As Shorrock prepares for her transition, she worked to help students through their own.
Tuesday afternoon found her standing in the back of the school, putting her students on the bus for the last time. Several came up to hug her.
“Be nice to your new science teacher, OK?” Shorrock asked one student.
“See you later,” Shorrock told another.
“You won’t see me later—you’ve got to go to Spain,” protested one girl.
“I’ll come back some day,” Shorrock replied.
Shorrock ended the school year by organizing the 8th grade graduation ceremony, which like her classes, ran with impeccable efficiency. The ceremony began at 10:02 a.m. and ended at 11:01.
Running the show helped distract her from the emotions of saying goodbye to the school, she said.
She shed a tear as she gave a goodbye hug to 5th-grader Ashley Harris.
On her way through the cafeteria, she told Rania Riddick-Beal (pictured) that she will send a postcard to the school.
“Bye Ms. Shorrock. I love you!” called out another student in the hall.
“I love you too,” she called back.
She headed to her classroom, where all her science goods were packed in labeled boxes, awaiting the next teacher.
Shorrock said the decision to take the Fulbright was “simple” on paper. But it was tough to think about leaving her kids.
The year before Shorrock arrived, students cycled through several teachers. The TFA corps member who started out as the middle-school science teacher didn’t survive one year.
Surviving two years took a lot of self-control: When a defiant student would say, “fuck you, white bitch,” for example, she learned to calmly reply, “I see you’re having a bad day” and send the kid to the principal’s office.
“That wasn’t my knee-jerk answer” at first, she said.
Shorrock brought in a kitchen timer, laid out a rigorous structure and clear expectations for every minute of class, and earned a reputation as a disciplinarian. She said she hopes the next teacher gives kids the structure they need.
“It worries me,” she said.
“I bet it will be the most fantastic teacher,” she said, but it might not be. “Not a lot of teachers put Wexler/Grant at the top of their list.”
“Based on whoever was here before that didn’t stay,” Shorrock said, she has “a big fear” that in leaving, she’s shortchanging her kids. There’s “a good chance they’ll get someone who they give a lot of hell, or a teacher who leaves and they’re left without a teacher again.”
That possibility leaves Shorrock feeling “very conflicted” and “selfish” about leaving, she said.
In Spain, she’ll be working as an assistant teacher at a public school in Madrid. She said she’s not sure where she’ll end up after her one-year stint, but she plans to continue teaching disadvantaged kids.
“It’s a very good fit for me. God knows why,” she said. “They liked me and I liked them.”
Advice: “Don’t Yell”
To prepare her kids for her departure, she led her 7th graders through a brainstorming exercise Friday. They talked about what kind of behaviors—from a teacher and from a student—will lead to a successful year.
Students wrote notes of advice for their next teacher.
Several suggested continuing Shorrock’s methods—like throwing around a ball to cold-call kids on the answers, being “hyper,” “energetic” and even “strict.”
“Never yell,” don’t let kids say “shut up,” and “make us work hard,” advised one student.
“Be like Ms. Shorrock,” several wrote, against their teacher’s direction to provide more specific advice.
Fellow teacher Jason Schneider walked into the classroom and took a look at the poster.
“It’s a hard act to follow,” Schneider said. The next teacher is going to have to confront an expectation to “be like Ms. Shorrock” and instead find his or her own way.
Schneider, a former administrator who returned to the classroom last fall to get an on-the-ground look at a new school district, is staying on for a second year at Wexler/Grant. Though he faced many challenges at Wexler, he cherished the feedback students gave him at the end of the year: “You never gave up on us.”
Schneider, who was packing up his classroom Tuesday, agreed to store Shorrock’s poster for the next science teacher. An educator for 13 years and an adviser to younger teachers, he tried to disabuse her from the notion that she would be able to stay in touch with the next teacher to help her students over the next year.
“You’re going to have to let go,” he said.
Past Independent stories on Wexler/Grant:
• Turnaround Teacher Finds The Rhythm
• Prison Guard’s Help Needed Back At School
• Breakfast Moves To Class
• Turnaround 101 Draws From Ivy Halls
• Pressure’s On As “CMT Olympics” Begin
• TFA Teacher Hits Stride—& May Leave Town
• A K-8 “Turnaround” Enlists Hillhouse Seniors
• At “Turnaround,” Half The Teachers Will Stay