When one becomes a teacher, there is an often told piece of advice given from veteran educators that encourages a new teacher to “not smile before Christmas.” The idea is that, if you show your students that you are happy and having fun, you are indirectly showing them that you are “weak.” I thought long and hard about what I was going to be like as a teacher, especially since I was very young and had little experience. Sure, I student taught during college and worked in Harlem the summer leading up to my first year, but this was different. For the first time, I was on my own.
And there I was, in September, standing by myself in front of a class of freshman ready to learn. I was a recent college graduate, I just moved to Newark a few weeks prior, and, at 21 years old, was the youngest member of the faculty by over a year. As an extremely young, new and inexperienced teacher, it was initially a challenge to gain the respect of the students and ever other teachers, some who had lived in Newark their entire lives. It was an interesting dynamic, but once people started to see who I really was and what my intentions were, things started to fall into place. My first semester had its ups and downs, and my teaching career had officially begun.
In addition to teaching, I was very fortunate for all of the amazing opportunities I had as a first year teacher. Perhaps most notably, I was able to chaperone three overnight trips with the Student Council, including college visits to Washington, D.C. and Boston and a trip to the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. As a result, I really got close with some of the Student Council members, mostly upperclassmen whom I otherwise would not have had a chance to work with and get to know individually. These students gave me tremendous insight into their lives and what it is really like growing up in Newark.
When I reflect back on my first year of teaching, it is the stories and conversations that stand out to me that are the most memorable. I have been so lucky to have had such amazing conversations with so many students this year, with discussions ranging everywhere from college life to immigration reform to living in poverty. I really enjoy having lunch with students and getting to know them on a more personal level. I often say that I feel that I learn more from them than I could ever teach them in a million years; I sure do hope that the ‘learning’ is mutual. I could go on and on about so many conversations I have had, like one about college with a rising junior till 5:00pm on a random Friday or standing on the national mall in DC listening to undocumented students from Brazil explain their struggles with things we all take for granted every day, like applying to college or even working a summer job. As I have stated previously, it is one thing reading about deep social issues such as the achievement gap or institutionalized racism, but experiencing it first hand is surreal.
I also helped coach the Math Olympics Pre-Calculus team, which won first place in the Newark Math Olympics. I couldn’t be prouder of such a great group of hard-working students that gave up so much of their free time to learn math. It was also interesting taking this team to the Essex County Math League Competition, where our East Siders faced much more affluent districts such as Livingston and Milburn. It was interesting to watch the achievement gap unfold right in front of me, as these two school districts seemingly swept away the rest of the competition. Also in April, I went to Denver for the 2013 NCTM Conference, where I was able to network with so many educators from all across the country. To close the year, I chaperoned two additional field trips to the Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo. Oh, and we may have also organized a few teacher-student kickball games after finals, as well…
I wish I could articulate every lesson I learned from my first year of teaching, but I would probably need to publish a book to do so. This has undoubtedly been the biggest life changing and eye-opening year of my life; my perspective of urban areas and social classes has changed tenfold. I wish everyone at some point in their lives has the chance to work at or visit an inner-city high school, as I think it offers great perspective into different people’s lives. It is an absolute privilege (and a unique challenge) to work with teenage students, and I promise you I never have a boring day at work! Sure, there were many times that I put in 12 hour days or stayed late to watch a game or advise a public speaking club, but it is these moments that really make it all “worth it.” I can honestly say that I love coming to work every single day.
Well, year one of teaching is in the books, folks. Almost exactly a year ago today I was heading into Newark for the first time, really unsure of what to expect from a city and school district I have heard so many negative things about. Looking back, moving to and working in Newark was perhaps the best thing that has ever happened to me. I love where I work, the students I work with, and many of my colleagues with like-minded attitudes that really care about our students. I have learned a lot from year one (including the fact that, against popular opinion, it is extremely important to smile before Christmas), and I am already thinking about what can be done better next year.
I could not have asked for a better first year of teaching. Now let’s see what’s in store for year number two.
In recent times, in seems as though everyone talks about how complex and controversial education reform is and how many elements need to evolve for schools to become better. While many solutions put forward push for massive institutional change and heavy financial commitments, I ask, “How about a simple solution?” This post is exactly that.
Let’s start with an even simpler question: What science classes did you take in high school, and in what order?
If you are with the overwhelming majority of people who graduated high school in the last few decades, you undoubtedly took Biology first, then Chemistry, followed by Physics, if you chose to take it. Most high schools in America, whether an elite private school in Westchester or a public SIG school in Chicago, offer these three science classes in that order.
Perhaps the better question is, why do schools sequence science classes in the way that they do?
Most people, myself included, would probably give a reason involving math, putting forward an argument that Algebra I is required for Chemistry and Geometry is required for Physics. Since most students only take Algebra I freshman year and Geometry during their sophomore year, they would not be qualified to comprehend the higher levels of science without the strong backing in math. Another often-held thought is that Biology is an easier course than Chemistry or Physics, so students will be more likely to pass that class during freshman year. These sounds like reasonable arguments, no?
Here’s the kicker: It turns out that, the real reason why high schools sequence their classes as Biology-Chemistry-Physics has nothing to do with math, student achievement levels, or even teacher certifications. Originally, some school administrator somewhere ordered these classes like so because they were in alphabetical order (B-C-P).
Yes. I know it is hard to believe. If you doubt that claim as I did, look up some historical information, and you will be just as surprised as I was.
But what’s the “so what?” factor here? This past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Michael Kuchar, Superintendent of Bergenfield Public Schools in New Jersey. Explaining the background of a Physics First curriculum, he flopped the order of the science classes in his district, so that all students, including honors and classified special education students, took Physics before Chemistry and then finished with Biology.
How did Bergenfield High School do, you ask? In one year, proficiency rates on the Algebra I EOC test skyrocketed from a 36% passing rate to an 80% passing rate. That is an increase of 46% in one academic year!
My question: If such an easy fix can drastically improve student achievement in one year, what are other basic changes that we could make that could help transform our school system? Education Reform is often heralded as this massive beast that involves complex ideas and ideologies to completely overhaul the system. Switching Physics and Biology seems easy enough to me. Now, how about another simple solution?