Beginning of School Blues

Damn, being an educator in the New York City public school system is a real time suck. This article was written during the first week of September 2018:

I don’t think I’ve ever dreaded my favorite season more than I do right now. All it takes to trigger a full blown panic attack is so much as a tiny miniature snap of chill on a breeze on an otherwise eighty degree day. I know what I’m embarking on is truly incredible, but that doesn’t make it any less frightening. A relatively new approach in teacher preparation, the Urban Teacher Residency seeks to reverse the deprofessionalization of teaching that has been perpetrated by certain political interests over the past several years.

Historically, the prevailing stereotype about teachers is that they have arrived at their profession as a result of some inherent deficit: that the have been relegated to their place at the chalkboard because they were insufficiently skilled at their field of interest. “Those who can’t do, teach;” it’s an idiom that is ubiquitous. I heard the quote for the first time in the film School of Rock. My dad, a veteran teacher of nearly 40 years found the line less funny than I did.

Being a student with exceptional learning needs, I graduated jaded and ready to rage against the K-12 machine, drawn by the promise of a different kind of learning experience that the ivory tower of the collegiate provides. I expected to find my calling in the insular walls of the academy. Inspired by the upper class Victorian characters in many of the novels I voraciously devoured at the time, I anticipated a life of educational leisure – the freedom to study any and all topics that caught my interest for their own sake. I hoped to research and write papers on such various topics as feminist and queer critiques of Shakespearean comedies to the broad transnational history of Whiteness, to dark matter and the God particle.

As anyone who has ever set foot in a college classroom can attest, it definitely does not work that way. I was greatly failed by my K-12 education and was left totally unprepared for the intricacies of college bureaucracy. I was left frustrated about how little priority is given to learning for its own sake in both contexts. Universities are in the business of making money. They could care less if students create deep, meaningful connections to content or enjoy the learning experience.

Aside from prostitutes and politicians, teachers have some of the worst professional reputations of all careers. Educators as members of the social fabric have been elevated and dropped as cultural mores shift throughout the ages. Women have historically dominated the profession, tinging education with the fragility of femininity and all the misogyny that comes along with it.

The rights and professional protections for teachers are under threat across the country. The median salary for teachers see-saws and teeters on the precipice of the poverty line in large swaths of the nation. Federal and state funding for schools – meant to cover supplies and other school building operations are inconsistent at best. The responsibility to keep the classroom functioning falls to already-overburdened teachers.

As an Urban Teacher resident, I’m teaching full time at a public high school located in the historic Jamaica High School campus in Queens. School started on September 5 during the height of a deadly heat wave over the northeast. Our classroom, on the third floor and far end of the wing of the building reached well over 90 degrees during instructional time. All over the building, teachers put their own money to pay for electric fans – a feeble replacement for new wiring and air conditioning.

Teachers are so frequently disrespected by those who have been most devotedly served by them. The idea that teachers have an easy job with cushy benefits and backing of strong unions is one that only takes into consideration a small fraction of the labor we put into our vocation.

My students are the most pure, shy, and innocent crew of academics to grace any high school in America. I teach two sections of a ninth grade writing elective. I’ve been given nearly complete curricular control over what and how I teach. This is incredible, especially since curriculum development is an important academic interest of mine.

I really think I had a skewed notion for how it all works, too. I think, as someone who actually uses washi tape and a horde of colored pens in my $70 planner (and, indeed, on all of the much cheaper stationery I own – like my notebooks from Dollar Tree), I overestimate the value of a super-detailed lesson plan. When an educator is skilled at the craft of teaching, s/he will know both content and teaching strategies well enough to be able to cobble something great up in no time flat. Students are rarely what you expect them to be, and the only way to account for their idiosyncratic behavior is to know what’s coming.

It makes me wonder if curriculum development is the wrong path for me. Curriculum, like democracy, belongs in the hands of the grassroots. This thought is in its amorphous, not-fully-formed phase and I’m flip-flopping back and forth. I’m sure I’ll reflect on this a lot as time goes on.

The very first assignment I gave my students this semester was to write me a letter that began with the sentence starter “I wish my teacher knew.” I gave them until the end of the week to write their letters and hand them in to me.

I took the letters home over the weekend to read and grade them as a baseline creative writing sample and I was overwhelmed by the things my students chose to share with me.

My students shared stories of immigration experiences and the difficulties and anxiety that come from having to write in a language that is new and unfamiliar. They told me about their hopes and dreams, devoid of the high-faluting aspirations of ambiguous fame and fortune so often espoused by my middle school students. My freshmen want to be police officers and lawyers and activists and occupational therapists. They want me to know that even though they are freshmen and do not know many of their peers or teachers, it does not mean that they are asocial or helpless. The vast majority of my kids very proudly told me about their tight-knit families and friendships that even their 24-year-old teacher can clearly label ‘squad goals.’

They are more aware of the way that society and teachers perceive them than we realize. Students defend themselves and their country of origins from harmful stereotypes they’ve encountered and some of them didn’t say much of anything at all. Trying to teach the alphabet to one student in a class that critically analyzes arguments and social biases is challenging to say the least, heartbreaking the more so.

Differentiation is incredibly difficult, probably the most complicated thing I’ve ever attempted. My philosophy of teaching is such that it is my professional responsibility to do whatever I can to support all the learners in my care, but with so many students and, being my first month on the job, so few strategies – I feel almost powerless to make the kind of difference I so desperately want to make.

Teaching is one of the most creative endeavors I’ve ever undertaken. This coming from someone who writes about half a million words every year, has fifteen acting credits since the age of sixteen, and plays five instruments. I’ve never thought of the field that way. There’s no such thing as the “correct” way to educate any group of students, but to find individualized solutions on the fly and with the skills of MacGuyver breeds ingenuity.

All in all, I am really enjoying my experience. I feel supported by my school community. I’m so grateful I didn’t accept the teaching fellows position and I am so excited to continue getting to know my kids!

(They) Queer educator, mental health advocate, city kid. Writer of words, questioner of social norms, collector of degrees, lovechild of Captain Janeway and Q

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