Periodically, Gothamist sits 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 talk 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. Essentially, we want to know: are the teachers all right?

Read them all here. As the school year concludes and another summer break begins, here's one more for the road.

Hannah is a second year English Language Arts teacher working at a middle school in Queens with a predominantly immigrant and English Language Learner population. Despite having only two years experience, Hannah has ambitions to shake up the city's school system and give her kids access to the achieve at the highest levels of academic success.

I guess I am one those people who always had a career in mind, since I was little. When I was in 3rd grade, I remember learning how to borrow in math class. I was so confused and because of that, I thought I had a horrible teacher. I went home that day in tears, hysterically crying, and I told my parents, “I am going to become a teacher someday, because I don’t want anyone to feel as sad as I feel for not understanding something.” That is something I’ve always carried with me. I’ve wanted to do this because I’m drawn to the idea of differentiating properly for students. That’s something that’s followed me my whole life.

When I applied to teaching programs, I applied to Teach for America, to the Urban Teacher Center and KIPP. But I really liked the idea of going to New York. I was also really interested in teaching a population that had a large ESL program (English as a Second Language) or that had predominantly Hispanic students because I had studied Spanish in college. The idea of being in an area where I could teach and apply those things I had learned—since I had worked so hard to achieve this minor in Spanish, I wanted to use it. I knew I could find a community like that in New York, especially in Queens, there is a huge population of students learning English as a second language. I also have an abnormal amount of energy. I think whenever I visited New York in the past, I felt, “The city gets me here, people don’t sleep here and it’s great!” That part of me fits in here well.

I teach sixth grade. It’s a cool age and underrated for teaching. There’s this bit of innocence that’s left still in my students. They are figuring themselves out. They need you more than ever as a teacher to be a positive person. I feel like I have the ability to make a really big difference and I like that. Especially with my girls.

I teach in an underserved area. My kids are from all over the world. In talking to my kids, I have seen that a lot of them don’t have moms who have gone into a career. I’m somebody who is independent and a woman and still pretty young. The fact that I tell them, “You can do this too,” it means a lot to them. It’s my birthday on Saturday, so today I got this letter from all the girls in the homeroom I oversee, saying, “You’re my hero. You’re my idol. When I grow up, I want to be like you.” I just cried. It shows you that you can do a lot by constantly telling kids they are capable at that age. There’s so much doubt when you are in sixth grade. I remember constantly doubting myself and hating myself, almost, at that age. To have someone tell you, “You can,” especially if that person is a woman and you haven’t seen many women in that position, it’s powerful.

I teach in Maspeth. A lot of students are from the neighborhood, but a lot are coming from Elmhurst or Corona too. We have a ton of English Language Learners at my school. Enrollment in ENL, our English as a New Language Learner program, is extremely high. Our students are primarily Hispanic but we also have a lot of Asian students. In my class, I teach one class that has eighteen Expanding English language learners and those kids are from all over the world. I have a kid who came in during the year from Honduras. All of the kids except for three were born in other countries or they are first generation. I also teach an SP class, honors or special placement, which is also very mixed in terms of where the students are from.

There have been a lot of challenges. My whole life, I have been a control freak when it comes to work. I would say I’m a borderline perfectionist. I think I had a rude awakening last year, that I wasn’t going to be able to control everything and it was never going to be perfect, no matter how hard I tried. It took me a long time to let go of that. 

I came directly to this job out of college. I went from this beautiful little liberal arts school, where you are taken care of and you have a community of people who support you and generally want the best for you, to a place where I had to adjust expectations for myself and give myself room to fail in order to grow.

That was really terrifying in the first year. I would put so much work in outside the classroom and then come into the classroom and see it fall through because I had a lot of trouble reaching my audience for the first part of the year. I almost forgot how to talk to kids. Things that made perfect sense to me and looked great in my lesson plan template, they didn’t necessarily make sense in the classroom. I had to learn to be okay with trial and error.

The second challenge was enduring negativity, from the school and from the system. Sometimes it makes me sad. I have come back down to reality. I have always been an extremely positive person, but I’ve seen some really sad things happen in this underserved school, where there are limited resources and where teachers are struggling. The environment where I work is a tough place. Since that’s become my reality, part of me is forever changed. I’ve had to learn to navigate the system to make it work for me. As a teacher in a huge New York City public school, if you want something to happen, you really have to get it done yourself. For example, I wanted to take my kids to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a field trip. Something that should be easy—taking the kids out of school, going on a field trip, giving them an opportunity to embrace Manhattan—I had to jump through so many hoops to make that work.

(Jennifer Preissel)

There are a lot of young teachers at my school. But I still feel lonely even though there are people my age. I have a hard time finding time being social during the school day and I feel really guilty about that. I don’t know how to change that. I felt really unhappy my first couple months of teaching and it kept me from being social and making friends and reaching out to make a support system for myself. I feel I missed an opportunity in that sense. I have a hard time asking for help. I have made friends at the school, but I don’t know if I want the same things as everyone else.

I have accepted who I am and I bring that to the classroom. Once I was able to accept and acknowledge that I am from a privileged background and decide I would not pretend to be anything other than who I am—that’s when I was able to find true success. My kids will sometimes teach me. It’s not just me instructing—my classroom is more collaborative. I think that once I accepted that, I opened up to my students. This year I know my kids so much more because I have taken the time to know them. I can’t know where they come from, I can’t truly understand unless they tell me. That’s been cool and enjoyable on my end to let that happen.

We have limited resources at my school, but rather than feeling I can’t do anything good, I have been proactive, making sure my school knows I’m willing to work. This year, for example, I have been helping out in the office. I took on this curriculum writing responsibility. I’ve been making myself available because I want our school to be better. I want to be a part of the change, rather than complaining about it. Because of that, not only do I know I am making things work better in my classroom, but maybe I’m making things work better for others too.

In the way I set up my classroom, I am very rigid with routines and rituals. But it’s all based on positive reinforcement. I don’t yell at children. I let them know when they are making me happy and I let them know when they haven’t met my expectations, but they don’t bring negativity into my classroom. I try to make my room a place where they will leave it at the door. I speak to my students by saying, “How can I help you? How can we get through this?” Not only do I put an emphasis on being myself, but I encourage others to do that as well. In the classroom, I expect that people are listening and being respectful to each other. I have created a classroom where people feel comfortable, and kids can come to me with questions and concerns. I feel that in all my classes, the environment is positive and a loving place. The kids feel respected by me and that’s my biggest success, I would say.

I proctored exams this year for a general education class. And all year, the kids who have been struggling in ELA, they gave up really easily on the tests. When they take tests, I try to say positive things to them. But a lot of times, you see questions on the test where the content is not relatable for my kids. Last year, one of the questions was about horseback riding. And my students didn’t understand that this was an activity people did for fun because they would never have the money to go horseback riding. It’s messed up. Someone who is from a more privileged background would know that.

The test is really discriminatory, and it’s not fair. I don’t think the people who make the test understand that the content is discriminatory. If the kids can’t understand a whole passage, they are not going to read it or even give it a shot since they have no idea what it means. It’s very stressful to watch. Everyone says, “Isn’t it testing week? Shouldn’t you be relaxed?” But it’s really hard to watch them sit there and struggle with these things. I hated that week.

I am thankful that the New York City Teaching Fellows program and my graduate program at St John’s gave me a supportive community to fall back on. I had professors who gave great advice, who will help me going forward in my career. I had people to talk to, who were willing to help me always. During the school year, as annoying as going to grad school was, I loved it because I saw the same people, my crew, once a week, and we were going through the same things. That’s something the Fellows gave me. I have people to ask stupid questions of and I don’t feel any judgment.

My experience has been better than friends who have been in the field who have minimal support. I have friends who went to certain charters that seem great because they have a lot of money and many resources, but now they are saying, “I have to get out of this system. It’s not healthy, it’s not okay.” It’s really hard to keep up the discipline. It makes you cold inside. But then there are other charter systems which are really wonderful and base school culture on positive reinforcement.

I think in ten years, I see myself just leaving the classroom. I want to start my own school. I want to start a charter school in Queens. I think that there is a really high need out there and that a lot of charters don’t know how to serve the ESL population. I want to get a PhD in administration or in educational leadership to start my own school. That’s my plan—creating something new. I have so much that I want to change and I don’t know how I could go into a school and change it unless it’s my own. Maybe in a decade I’ll laugh that I even said that, but as of right now, I would like to start my own charter school in Queens for kids who are immigrants or children of immigrants.

It’s hard to know your rights if you are new to this country. It’s an issue in any underserved area, but the language barrier makes addressing that especially difficult. I think that we need to strengthen relationships between parents and teachers, especially if there is a language barrier. I know it’s impossible to have all your teachers speak the language of their students, but I think that should be your target or you should have teams designated for that specifically.

We also need to differentiate the content in the classroom for different cultural backgrounds. How do we make content actually relatable? How do we make learning inclusive? Sometimes my lessons really do work for everybody. Because I am a privileged teacher teaching in an underserved community, the kids have different backgrounds from me, but they also often have very different backgrounds from each other. I want to build a school that has a curriculum that is inclusive in that way. And that works for the parents, lets them know their rights, brings them into the classroom, gets them the help they need, gets them their own ESL classes. I almost want to start a school for kids and their parents, with a day school and a night school.

As negative as things get sometimes, I still can say I love what I do. Being a New York City public school teacher is hard, but all the people I know, working in the field, love it. There’s a reason why we are doing this. Dealing with the way things are almost seems masochistic from an outsider’s perspective. But there’s a reason why we do it. We love kids. My hardest days are frustrating because I didn’t reach the kids or make a big enough difference. That’s an important thing—and it’s not just me that feels that way, it’s also the people I went into teaching with. I think it’s really impressive. They really love kids.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jennifer Preissel is a New York City high school teacher.

Read our entire New York City teacher interview series here.