Periodically, Gothamist sits down with teachers at different stages in their careers to talk shop. This week, we spoke with Cynthia, who has been a teacher for nine years. She works at the High School for Public Service in Crown Heights, where she’s taught courses in math, economics and U.S. government. Before she became a teacher, she worked as a corporate lawyer and an executive coach.
As an undergraduate—I tell my students this story all the time—I wanted to be a doctor. But when I got into school, I found that, while I might have liked the idea of being a doctor, the work of being a doctor wasn’t really for me. So I switched my major to psychology.
When I was finishing undergrad, I thought I would continue to go to school to get my PhD in psychology. But when I thought about it, I felt I needed to be a little more directed and get a professional degree. I had taken a few classes on mental health and the law and it sort of got me interested in thinking about things in legal ways. I found that there were some progressive attorneys who I was starting to follow, so I said, "Maybe I’ll go law school, I’ll try that."
My father finished his degree while I was in high school. But otherwise, there was no one in my immediate family who had their degree, so I was discouraged from going to grad school and told to get a job. When I graduated in 1979, I told my father I wanted to apply to law school and he told me, "I am not helping you go to law school." But I applied and I got into Harvard Law.
It was challenging. I was involved in student politics there. If you do a Google search, you will find a letter to the editor I wrote about a boycott we had to try to diversify the faculty and bring more African-American professors. Afterward, I ended up working for a big law firm here in New York City for a couple of years. Then I transferred to a smaller firm and I decided that practicing law wasn’t working for me at all.
I moved to California and I dabbled in film for a bit. It didn’t really take me anywhere. Eventually I had to find a job and I fell back on my law degree. I took the California bar, passed it and got a job as the general counsel of an international health food company. I began to like law a lot more. But eventually I got married and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Then we moved to New York. After my daughter was born (she’s 23 now), I started to look into coaching. I liked working with leaders and helping them think about how to do things. I went through NYU’s program in executive coaching. But it actually took me into thinking about young people. My daughter was getting a little bit older. And I thought, maybe what I really wanted to do was teach. At this point, I was divorced. I was dating a guy who was a principal and he said, "Why don’t you try the Teaching Fellows program?" So I did. And it was the right move.
After starting the program, I met a woman at a job fair—she’s currently the social worker at my school, the High School for Public Service. She talked about the HSPS, what the mission was, and I was amazed. I came to interview in late June that year. I came in and taught my demo lesson to a group of 25 kids who just volunteered to come in.
At the time the principal was Ben Shuldiner. He now runs the principal training program at Hunter College. But he had a real vision for the school. I was excited because he wanted me to use my legal background even though I had a math license. I would teach math but he wanted me to think about what a legal academy might look like and encouraged me to shape my own career there. That’s why I came. I finished my ninth year in June.
The school was founded by Ben when he was pretty young. When I started working there, he was still in his 20s; he might have been the youngest principal in New York. It was founded with the mission that young people would work in service of their community. We have a legal academy. We have a medical academy and a community-service orientation that is very strong. Students are expected to do 200 hours of community service.
We have a pretty mature teaching group. One of our social studies teachers has a PhD in economics. And teachers tend to stay. We have a really vibrant English department and drama program. It’s a small school. Our population is from the neighborhood in Crown Heights. A lot of our students are West Indian. The school is maybe 15 percent Latino. We are a Title I school, and maybe 90 percent of the kids qualify for free lunch. Graduation rates are usually between 95 and 97 percent. One of our alums just graduated from Brown this weekend. We have a former student at Cornell. Most of our students go to CUNYs. Almost all of our students consider themselves college-bound.
We have relationships with community-based organizations. There’s a youth farm, so we have a farm club and a "Go Green" program where kids are talking about food justice. Students volunteer at New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. We have youth leadership training programs. On Global Service Day, every single student goes out and does service.
Coaching is about helping people recognize that they have a mind that can work for them. So I came into teaching from that perspective. I was not interested in jamming information into students. I realize this is a testing state but I wanted to inspire students to think for themselves using that coaching model. I think at my whole school, there are strong relationships between adults and young people which underpin the success we have.
Ben left and we had another principal come in, Sean, and he’s different but excellent as well. I have probably stayed in teaching because we have principals who treat all of us as professionals and because we are all encouraged to be leaders in the school. A lot of the oppression that teachers sometimes feel, I don’t have to deal with that, and it makes a big difference.
I teach a lot differently than I did when I started. I was frustrated with my classes my first year, perhaps because I went into too much detail and would always try to explain more. I had to shift toward believing that the students were capable of working at higher levels than we might give them credit for. As I got to be more experienced, I drew back and saw that students understood more when I would give them some space to work.
If anything, it has been a criticism of my teaching, that I’m teaching at too high a level. Kids might say, "We want you to make it simpler." But they don’t really want that. They are not interested if it’s simple. So I really like questioning, discussing what’s going on with students. That’s why I love teaching about government—and economics too. I teach econ as a discussion class, not as a science.
I teach a curriculum in conjunction with a program called Generation Citizen, an action civics program. They push into the schools with democracy coaches who are college students who are in the classroom with a viewpoint that young people can make changes in their community. It fits well with our mission. This is a curriculum where the students are really put into the driver’s seat to find the issues in their own communities that they would like to take action on. Not just to join the New Yorkers Against Gun Violence or work at the soup kitchen but to think about how to achieve systemic change and how to develop the strategies that would make that happen.
Every semester, from the beginning to the end, students resist this. I can remember, maybe six or seven years ago, a student saying, "We feel like we are wandering in the desert." Because the learning is really on them. This is a loose curriculum. Each class identifies issues they want to deal with. I had a class interested in the issue of immigration because we have a lot of undocumented families in our student population. Another class identified the issue of standardized testing as a focus. They were trying to encourage schools and school policymakers to embrace non-traditional testing methods. Another class focused on the minimum wage, the fight for $15. They all choose issues based on what they see in their communities and it engages them in a different way.
And it is academic. Students are just not used to learning in this way, so initially there is a lot of pushback. "Can we go back to a regular curriculum? Can we just read articles and have discussions?" But it’s always something they remember. At the end of the year, a number of students attend a civics day and present to policymakers and non-profit executives. Students who might have been dragging their feet in the classroom come alive during this day. They hear their own ideas and people listen to them. I feel this really shifts the way students think about what they can do in their community.
In my classroom, I spend a lot of time talking about how young people have been instrumental in changing things, in spurring movements. And they are surprised. We have families where people don’t vote because they do not realize they can or they are not registered or, in the case of the kids or the newly arrived, can’t vote yet. But this idea that you could participate in the community and not be a registered voter, or not be a citizen, we talk about that.
There are individual charters that are okay, but in a general way, I have problems with charter schools because they are siphoning off more than just money from the public school system. They challenge the idea that public schools are there for everybody. I disagree with the idea that you create schools that are better—not that they are, but the illusion that they are better—and only certain students get to be there.
That charter schools are funded by private donations or private enterprise, and in some cases, some are for-profit, is a problem for me. And that they are sometimes run with hands-on interaction from more privileged people with little understanding of the students’ perspectives, so you get these schools where student behavior is rigid and regimented. You get this weird outcome of highly compliant, well-behaved kids who aren’t necessarily doing better but they "look" better to people who are privileged. I have a problem with that. If you come to our school, what you see is that kids are free to be themselves. They are loud, they are not snapping to attention or necessarily sitting correctly, but they are well behaved. They are being themselves and that is seen as something valuable.
I love teaching. There’s nothing like being with young people at this stage in their life. It’s hard but it’s great work to do.