Periodically, Gothamist sits down with teachers at different stages in their careers to talk shop. For the first week of school, we spoke with three teachers about why they chose to teach, what they're doing in their classrooms, and their goals for the year.
Samantha teaches humanities to eighth graders in the Bronx. She entered teaching through the New York City Teaching Fellows program. This is her third year in the classroom.
I came into teaching reluctantly. My mom is a teacher in New York. When you are growing up, the profession that your parents do is by far the least interesting. You never aspire to do what they do. I studied art. And I really thought that was going to be my thing. During college I had these tutoring jobs and I interned in a museum and was a docent. I liked the age of the kids who visited the museum. Middle schoolers, who I teach now—there’s an energy about them I really like. So when I graduated, I applied for the New York City Teaching Fellows program to see where it would take me. And now I teach English and history.
In my high school, we had a lot of free periods where you wouldn’t really do much of anything. I would hang out in my art teacher’s room and grade her papers, which I thought was so cool at the time. I get that strategy now. She tricked me into doing all this work! I would jump at the chance to bring down the attendance. To me, at 15, that was so cool. Her room was a home away from home in a lot of ways. I had such a close relationship with this teacher. I talk to her now as someone who teaches and think, "Wow, I can’t believe you gave up all that free time to be around me and my friends, when we were probably just as obnoxious and loud and goofy as my kids are now."
I teach in the Bronx, in Mott Haven. It’s a school within a school. We have one and a half floors. It’s tiny. The school runs 6th to 12th grade. I teach the entire 8th grade, which is maybe 70 kids. Everyone knows your name. My principal and I will have conversations about kids and he knows every single kid I’m talking about. I think that intimacy helps a lot of kids to not get lost in the shuffle. It removes a layer of bureaucracy. If I want to implement something for eighth grade English, it will be implemented. It’s not like kids are coming to class and one teacher did it this way, and another did it that way—it’s uniform across the grade since I’m the one English teacher.
We are an early college school, so in middle school, you can test into high school level classes. This is because in high school, you will hopefully take classes at Hostos Community College, which is right across the street. Out of 90 kids in the average graduating class, about 50 percent graduate with an associate’s degree from a CUNY.
One thing I try to do is not get insulted or take things too personally. For example, if you try to teach your favorite book of all time, you are just going to be disappointed. You will feel too tied up in it. The reality is, I teach a general subject. It’s not like kids elect to take my class. I love certain books and I will recommend them to kids. But I’m not going to make a whole class of kids read my favorite things because it’s opening a can of worms to teach something that you love and they just hate.
The hardest thing about this job is the blurred lines of it all. There’s such a personal element to teaching that it’s hard to turn off sometimes. You are basically parenting 70 kids. It’s hard to go home and say, "That’s it, I’m home, I’m done." Because there’s always more stuff you can do. It’s a job where you can never sit back and be done.
I got some really good advice the summer after my first year. Someone told me, "Write down five things you want to do next year. Because if you don’t write down just five things, you will spend the entire year giving one to two percent of your effort to a thousand things." You won’t accomplish anything. Managing your time is really hard. It’s tough to say, "This is as good as my lesson or my unit is going to be right now. I’ll let go and build on it next year."
I teach a Holocaust unit to my English class. A lot of kids read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or Stones in Water. These are fictionalized friendship-despite-hardship type of stories and that’s great, but those stories are not based in the reality of the situation.
We had a bunch of copies of Elly, a memoir by a Holocaust survivor. It’s a better book to teach middle schoolers because it doesn’t assume a lot of prior knowledge; the book explains itself. I like that it’s not a fictionalized account. A coworker of mine knows the writer. So she comes to speak to the students. My kids get to talk to her and she talks to them. Some of the kids cry.
We do the math and I tell them, "Your children will not get this opportunity. This is something you will tell your kids about. Let’s say you have a kid in 10 years. This person will be in her 90s. Add 13 more years to that, when your child will be mature enough to get something out of asking meaningful questions of a Holocaust survivor. That person will be 105. If she’s alive, do you think she’s going to travel to schools and tell kids about her experiences?" That they are the last children who will have these opportunities, they don’t forget it.
I’m in District 7 and our graduation rate is, I believe, in the mid-90s. It’s a district where the average rate is, I want to say, in the 50s, 60s.
I think it’s the 6th through 12th grade aspect of the school that makes this possible. Kids come back and show me their report cards. I’m not their parent, why are they doing doing this? But kids come back to their middle school teachers to show us what they have done in class in their 10th, 11th and 12th grade.
We have one teacher who teaches 6th grade and 12th grade. He had taught the graduating seniors, when they were about to head to college, and he had taught them when they were 11 years old. Some of my 8th graders say, "I wish that when we are in the 12th grade, you will teach us a class just for us." So I say, "If it works, I’ll teach a 12th grade reunion class, but just remember when you guys were jerks in the 8th grade!"