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'll run a different teacher profile each day this week (read them all here). Today we feature Erik, who is in his second year of teaching English as a second language and social studies in the Bronx. Erik is also the United Federation of Teachers' chapter leader for his school.

When I was in college, I worked at Starbucks at the Mall of America. I saw that there were lots of problems—poverty wages, inconsistent scheduling, arbitrary firings, sexual harassment from the boss. So my coworkers and I started a union and we were able to change a lot of things. We got much more stable scheduling. We were connected to Starbucks workers doing some of these things across the US. We saw that when workers stand together you can have a voice and you can change things. So I got very involved in union organizing in the fast food industry for about seven years.

I also began working as a substitute teacher. I had this experience of essentially working with the people in the fast food industry whose kids I would then encounter in the classroom. And I saw that there was this very direct connection between poverty and academic success. I thought you could attack poverty both by union organizing, which is probably the most powerful tool we have, but that education also has to play a role, to give people the confidence to believe that we can live in a better world, to open their minds to different possibilities for themselves and for the whole society.

Eventually I decided to go into teaching, which took me into the New York City Teaching Fellows here in the Bronx. I had not planned on getting active in the union when I started as a teacher, but I rapidly saw that so many of the problems we have in the school system are actually workplace problems—they are problems of capitalism.

To give an example, it has been more than half a century since Brown v. Board of Education, but we still have a separate and unequal education system in this country, because of, not just race, but also class and increasing class inequality. In New York City, what that means is underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded schools where teachers are stretched to the breaking point to meet the needs of their students.

New York State was actually sued for criminally underfunding the school system. There was a settlement of this lawsuit in 2006, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, where a state judge in the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, found New York State owes the city $5.9 billion in funding to give students here equal opportunities as their largely white, middle class peers in the suburbs. The state has refused to pay. It has now been eight years since this lawsuit went through. The state is still not in compliance with the court ordered settlement.

What this means is that teachers are expected to make up for the large class sizes, the lack of support staff, the lack of social workers and psychologists, the typically thin offerings of art classes, the lack of sports in a lot of schools, especially schools with large student of color populations. We have to make up for that with our own blood, sweat and tears.

I think we have to transform the UFT. The UFT is, I think, like most unions in the United States, it's based on a model of service unionism, where people pay their $54 a paycheck and in exchange they get services. They get advice, help with dental insurance, a catalogue with discounts on a security system for your home, maybe some professional development courses. But that's not where the power of the union lies. The power of the union lies in members talking to each other, figuring out what problems they have, what problems they share with the community and taking action. If we did that, the UFT would be an unstoppable force.

Imagine if all 1,700 schools in New York City became hubs of community organizing, of welcoming parents into the school, getting a dialogue going about, "What are the issues here? What's going on with the subway system? What about healthcare? Why can't people make a living wage? What's the deal with extortionate rents?" And then wage campaigns around those issues. Bring people back into politics. That's the power we have as teachers because, by virtue of the fact we are implanted into communities, by virtue of the fact that we teach, we are connected to every working class family in this city.

The weight of standardized testing is absolutely crushing. It makes it difficult for teachers to foster critical thinking when students could be tested on more facts and figures than they could ever conceivably learn in a school year. All teachers do a dance of trying to make sure kids do well on these tests.

Study after study shows two things. First, students who grow up in white middle class households disproportionately do better on these tests than students of color who grow up in poverty. Scores on these tests correlate directly to how white and how rich you are. That truly should give people pause to think about what exactly we are testing. Are we actually testing how smart the kids are? Or are you testing how white and rich they are?

The second thing is that, the tests are written in academic English. Which is the English which is normatively white, middle or upper class English. Every single ESL researcher has concluded it takes at least five years for a kid to acquire academic English. Taking a kid who comes here from Honduras, where a U.S.-supported coup has thrown their country into turmoil, not speaking a word of English, and expecting him to, in one year, pass tests designed for native speakers who grew up in middle-class suburbs their whole lives, is ridiculous.

Constantly pushing kids through the standardized testing meat grinder hurts their self esteem and gives them a negative feeling about school. Is it any wonder the dropout rates are what they are when the message students get is, "The English you speak is not right"?

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(Jennifer Preissel / Gothamist)

At my school, I have a lot of support and I’m happy with my administration and colleagues. But no matter how much support you have, the fact is that teaching is a very challenging job. My school is a school that, the majority of our student body are recent immigrants. Despite the fact that they may have arrived from Albania or the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Yemen, Bangladesh, a year ago or less, they are required to pass the Regents exams, which are written in academic English and based on the background knowledge that a native-born citizen would have.

I was teaching U.S. History. We had to build all that knowledge in class. My students did very well on the Regents. I think we exceeded the city-wide pass rate, even for native speakers. I am very proud of them, they put in a lot of hard work. But it's very bittersweet, because they worry so much about doing well on the standardized tests and it takes away from other talents they have, whether it comes to music, arts, dancing or sport. They should not just be gaining knowledge for a test, but developing a really deep understanding of how our society works.

My typical day starts at about midnight, when I finish up grading. At about 1 am, I go to sleep. I get up 5 and half hours later, make eight ounces of espresso and take a shower, put on my business casual—my teacher costume, as I call it.

For my first period class, kids would come in, and I would say they have five minutes to eat their bacon-egg-and-cheese, because I need their undivided attention for the mini-lesson, but I know if I don't let them eat breakfast, they are going to be hungry. Then, we spend the first 15 minutes of class on a lesson where we might look at some work some students had done the day before to see what we can learn from it. Or, we try to tell learning stories about a challenge a student faced in class and how she overcame it.

Let's say a student was doing a research project about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They might stand up and say, "I didn't know what to do, so I asked the teacher, he told me I should use the classroom resources to learn about this." The idea is that students are going to learn better from their peers. They are going to do things the way that is best for them and a way that is teachable that we might not even think of.

Sometimes I just present something or we might watch a short video and take notes and have a guided discussion. Then they would, in small groups, read texts that they had selected to share with their peers and discuss them, which could be about anything. In the last 30-40 minutes of class—we had 70 minute class periods last year—students would work in teams to make short presentations for the class about topics they needed to learn for that unit. And so at the end of class, students share what they learned that day. Then I would do that four more times.

We are not supposed to teach more than three standard periods in a row, which is 135 minutes. Often there are emergencies, you might need to cover a class for somebody, or your schedule might violate the contract. That's pretty common. Teachers might be in front of students for three hours or more. So what do you do if you have to go to the bathroom? I think that a majority of teachers in New York City skip lunch.

And then afterschool, you might have an activity that you supervise. You start your school day around 8 and you might leave school by 3, 4 or 5. You bring home the grading you need to do, plus planning lessons, you might be putting another 3 hours in per day, at least. You are putting in about 8 hours a day at school and at least 2 hours outside of that. If you do the math, that's 50 hours during the week. I would say often it's more time than that outside. Then on the weekend, you'd also be working. You go home and you check your voicemail and you see that all your friends who are not teachers are wondering what became of you.

I am a New York City Teaching Fellow. This is a program that takes people who have no teaching experience, puts them through a six-week training, much of which is spent on practicing how to get kids to stand in a straight line. It's a bad idea. And it's unfair to the students. I think the bigger question is, why does the DOE say something like the Teaching Fellows is needed? They say it's needed because of a teacher shortage. Well, there wouldn't be a teacher shortage if the working conditions in the DOE did not burn people out.

I think defenders of charters say they get better results, they can be more flexible, you can do more innovative things. The big problem with charter schools is that, unlike public schools, they can kick kids out. It's actually a problem very similar to the issue with elite schools in New York in general, the application process for getting into a high school, which creates a class system in the public schools.

Charter schools can kick kids out, so they take the kids who are easier to work with, need less support to succeed and they kick out the kids who have behavioral problems, learning disabilities, who are struggling to acquire English. Over time, this creates this gradient where the students who need less support do better because maybe because they have more stable family lives or they come from a higher socioeconomic class, they end up in the charter schools and the public schools get the kids who need the most help. But they are getting fewer resources than the charters to do this. The charter system is creating a two-tiered education system and that's been morally wrong always, and legally wrong since Brown vs. Board of Education.

I think I lost a half inch of hair last year—I don't think it's because my brain is getting larger. I would love to be in the classroom in ten years. But it feels unsustainable. Teachers who have kids have to choose between teaching the kids in the classroom or seeing the kids that they created. You can't live that way. I got into teaching to help educate kids. I'm going to stay in it to bring about systemic change. If that's not possible, then I can't do this forever—nobody can.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jennifer Preissel is a New York City high school teacher.