2004_09_mharper.jpgBasically Speaking
Age, profession, where you live, etc...
I am a 24 year old NYC public school teacher. I live in Park Slope/Windsor Terrace, but have also lived in Williamsburg and near Washington Square Park. Strangely enough, I have a degree in Biological Anthropology with a specialization in Primatology...not much you can do with that, but share great trivial monkey facts at dinner parties.

How did you come to become a NYC public school teacher?
I joined through the AmeriCorps sponsored NYC Teaching Fellows program right after graduation. I was pretty unsure of what I wanted to do and the health benefits were pretty tempting. I didn't really expect to love it or become so invested in it...go figure.

Why do NYC public schools keep teachers with their students for two grades these days? [For example, students might stay with a teacher for second and third grades.]
That's actually not that common, it is school specific. A lot of administrators prefer it, I think, because when teachers are working with at risk kids, more time means a better rapport and better results. This year, in fact, I am teaching 2nd grade for the first time with the plan of following (or looping as we call it) my students up to third. I wanted to do this because third grade testing is such a hardship. Knowing my students' strengths and weaknesses going into that grade will hopefully make a difference. On the other hand, many teachers choose to just focus on one grade for many many years. The benefit is that they get to know the curriculum really well. Then again, they have a high risk of burn-out. There are only so many ways to teach the same thing over and over before it becomes mind-numbing.

What do you think of the Bloomberg administration's education initiatives, such as ending social promotion for students after third grade and the re-alignment of the Department of Education?

It is really hard for people directly involved with students to take a strong stance on social promotion either way. For every example of the ills of social promotion, I can show you an example of how it helps. Certain policies, however, are plainly detrimental. Testing as a sole passing criteria is one. Bloomberg claims publicly that many factors are considered. I can tell you though, that on the third grade, you must pass the test. End of discussion. This is such a horrible way to judge eight year olds. These tests are flawed and
really counter to the way third graders think. They require speed reading and rapid inferential leaps. Most eight year olds are just getting comfortable reading without pictures. They lack the confidence to perform when timed. I could go on forever about the evils of standardized testing.

Streamlining the district offices was largely unpopular with tenured teachers because it took a lot of them out of offices and put them (gasp!) back in the classroom. It really wasn't a bad thing though. It had just gotten to this point of being too many cooks in the kitchen; there needed to be a good clean-out.

Overall, Bloomberg doesn't know education. Sadly, Klein is no better. They take the credit for our work, but none of the blame. Same old story of management vs. labor.

What do you think can make a difference to most NYC public schools?
Believe it or not, the issue is not really money. My school, for example, doesn't lack in supplies or equipment. The real difference could be made in better hiring practices for teachers and administrators. At the risk of getting too union here, a better contract would attract better people to the profession. We need bright, talented new teachers. In order to do that, old stereotypes are going to have to be eradicated. We need to get rid of this huge teacher stigma. "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." It is really sad. Teachers do a necessary job that most people would not or could not do. Yet, public opinion is often against us. There is also a huge turnover in administration, causing a sort of free-for-all. NYC needs to get good people and keep them.

The NYC Teaching Fellows program was a good attempt at getting better teachers. Of course, politicans went and messed that up too. As part of our contract, new teachers in the at-risk schools were promised $4,500 a year for two years towards paying off student loans or new educational expenses. The money was a federal AmeriCorps grant. After completing our years of service, we were told that the budget had been over-extended and that we would not be getting both payments. Basically, after we fulfilled our part of the agreement, the government reneged on its portion. This was a Clinton initiative trashed by Bush. Thank you, Mr. President, two steps forward, one step back.

It seems that many young teachers are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed whenthey head into the NYC public schools, but end up becoming very cynical, with quite a few burning out. What happens?
The best piece of advice I was given going into this profession was to not make any decisions your first year. Every teacher hates their first year. And it is totally true! Teaching is not the joyfull and exhilerating experience you want it to be...at least not most of the time. It is impossible to not feel like a failure when you are unable to help every kid as much as they need to be helped. And here's the truth, no teacher can work miracles for every kid. It will not happen.

This is where the big burn-out comes from in my opinion. You start on this track of 'Could i do more? I have to do more!' You go home and cry. Eventually, you take pride in the small successes. You learn to let some things go. Either that or you quit.

Describe what you do in a "typical" day.
There is no typical day for a teacher. We come home with the craziest and sometimes most beautiful stories. Working with thirty kids everyday makes your job unpredictable. Add to that the inherent instability of our Dept. of Ed. and the fast pace of our city and you get a day of juggling, troubleshooting and adapting. You have to be creative and quick thinking to do this successfully. The best teachers can whip up a lesson at the drop of a hat when they have to, but have insightful lessons planned and on hand so that rarely happens.

What about other teachers there who have been at the school for a while - what are their attitudes like?
Teachers are not all old, embittered women who scream and instruct from a crusty old manual. This city is filled with creative, dynamic professionals who do their jobs with pride and enthuisasm. I really wish I could change the common teacher stereotype. It is rarely accurate, though admittedly, you will get that old school marm now and then. We have this great job where we get to bring the world to our classroom. We get to fulfill our own academic and worldly curiosities through teaching. It sounds pat, I know, but there is something really
incredible about seeing the world, more specifically this city, through the eyes of a child. Even more amazing, we get to show them the world in a particular light. For me, it is so important to bring world cultures and earth sciences into the classroom... to stress appreciation rather than mere tolerance and conservation rather than exploitation. This is grassroots, people! This is change at the cellular level.

You teach in Cypress Hills. Most people only know Cypress Hill from the group's hit, Insane in the Brain. Do you get a lot of "Are your students insane in the brain?" Or is it a school anthem?
I teach in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. We're right near the Queens border, but still in East New York. "Insane in the Brain" is definitely a frequent player in my mental soundtrack, but sadly (and be prepared to feel old, people) the kids in our school don't know the song or the group!

You on NYC:
What's your favorite subway line?
The L. I love that it goes across. It is like the defiant train line!

What are your favorite and least favorite Brooklyn gentrification trends?
I love the new Atlantic Terminal Target! I hate the granola bohemes upping the rent and making buying an impossibility. Hmmm...I actually think the worst gentrification trend is when people who partly cause the gentrification, and definitely benefit from it, complain about it. Guilty.

Favorite NYC politician
Gotta be Martie Markowitz, Brooklyn borough prez! That man parks illegally and unapologetically, gives out frighteningly green bagels on St. Paddy's Day, and is just an all around laugh riot. He gave the speech at my graduation from Brooklyn College's Master of education program. It was hilarious! People near the speakers were like blown back by his screaming.

Best place to buy lots of school supplies for cheap
Oooooooo...tough. You gotta be willing to put the time into sale watching. Target and Staples have awesome sales. I'm talking Crayolas for $0.25 and marble notebooks for $0.10. No time for comparison shopping, hit the dollar stores! My favorite is Save on Fifth (5th Ave and like 7th St. in Park Slope).

Dogs, cats, or babies?
Have to admit it, my dog is my baby. Right now, I spend all day with my kids. So, I like to come home, take the dog to the park and curse like a sailor.

Margaret has a blog, Harper's Bizarre, where she'll be posting photographs of her classroom - still trashed from the last day of school. And she also recommends Donors Choose, a donation program that lets donors pick the charities they wish to support, many of them being simple things like funding supplies at a public school.