Last month, 240,000 students and their teachers returned to the corridors of New York City’s 500 public high schools. Gothamist sat down with teachers at different stages of their careers—some entering service, some with a few years under their belt, and a couple of vets. We talked about why they chose to teach, how they feel about the government's education policy and their thoughts on the charter system and the United Federation of Teachers. We wanted to know: are the teachers all right?
We ran a different teacher profile each day this week (read them all here). To finish the series we have Mark, who is in his 15th year of teaching art and special education in Park Slope.
Patterns arise in our lives. We recognize some; other ones we don’t. Basically, I got into teaching based on one of these patterns. One of the high schools I attended—I was a military brat, so we moved around a lot—was in Okinawa, and our psychology class one day went to The Annex. The Annex was where anyone who had a visible disability was placed. Things weren’t being assessed back then, things weren’t being diagnosed, so if you couldn’t read, you were still placed in the “regular” building, but if you had a disability that outed itself, like Down’s syndrome, you would be placed in the Annex. That was sort of the first part of the pattern. As I got older, I enjoyed being in the classroom, I enjoyed helping other students. After I graduated college, I decided not to become a lawyer, and at that point, other parts of the pattern started popping up, other job opportunities. Pretty soon, it seemed like the only logical option was to continue on and become a classroom teacher.
Waianae is where I had my first job in Hawaii. The geography of the place is such that there’s only one way in, via the water, and no real way out. On this corner of Ohahu, we had one of the very early meth epidemics in the country, in the early 90's—though then it was called ice. A lot of the islanders fell prey to this so there were issues like addiction, homelessness, affecting the community.
I had this student who was living in a homeless camp on the beach in Waienae. This particular student was scrawny, short, a small kid for his age. He said that one thing he didn’t like about his life—he wrote it in a paper—was that he couldn’t use the bathroom at night because all the drug dealers were in the beach bathrooms all night long. This kid came to school fairly regularly, he was making it through.
There wasn’t a high murder rate at the beach but kids would be bullied, they’d be treated very poorly, their lives were oftentimes, from their viewpoint, meaningless—they felt powerless and they had nowhere to go. Kids could be living on a beach without any protection. You are living in a tent and you’re moving up and down the beach and everyone in your community knows this.
When you are in a community like that especially, you take things with you, you have no choice. More importantly, you feel compelled—how can you not help that kid out? Even if he is not behaving the way you want in class, even if he is not making the progress you want him to, how can you, knowing the context of his life, how can you think, “Oh yeah, that’s not that big of a deal. I need to move on”? When you have community ties, it’s twice as difficult to leave. Often what is forgotten is that education is a form of protection. And not just in that it prepares you to get a job.
We started considering a move in the beginning of 2001. It came down to two places—Alaska and New York. The idea for Alaska was that we could teach in a small village, save a whole lot of money and then do something else in five years. We considered New York for a few reasons. My wife had history here. She taught one year here during school. She knew the lay of the land and had references through Bank Street and Columbia, so it wouldn’t be an issue getting a job. For me, special education was in demand in New York.
Also, as a child, I wanted to be four things: president, major league baseball player—teacher was fourth—but third was to run a deli in New York City. So this was always one of those places where I had wanted to live.
I know it’s convoluted, but in my mind, what sealed the deal for me was 9/11. I’m a military brat, and in no way was I going to join the military, but I also feel strongly about the need for servicemen and the honor people carry when they are soldiers. People tend to see me as a liberal, but I’m very centrist. I told my wife, “We need to go to New York now for sure because we’re going to be a part of that. We’re going to do what we can to show we won’t back down.” I think the word patriot should be struck from the English language at this point. But I have pride in my country and I have pride in what we stand for most of the time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jennifer Preissel is a New York City high school teacher.