These last few months have been busy, very fast, and quite exciting. Between subbing summer classes, working on random projects, and tutoring SAT prep sessions, I honestly feel that I started school a month early this year! In August, I found out that I would officially be changing rooms, and was going to be teaching in room 301. I was really excited to get a new classroom. Just like my experience last year, it took a lot of cleaning to get my room in order. After spending about two full weeks cleaning up the room and making everything look nice for the first day of school, I was ready to start year two at East Side.
On my first day of school, I tried out an activity my Vice Principal told me he used about working hard and achieving goals. In essence, I had a student jump as high as they could, and mark their jump with a marker. After leading a conversation with the class, I got a chair, and taped a $5 bill an inch above the mark on the wall. Each student then had a chance to jump up and get the bill. After all of the students were successful, we talked about how this related to life. Intrigued? I guess you’re just going to have to sit in on my class next year to find out…
This year, I was appointed the school’s head academic coach, allowing me to run team eligibility reports, identify at-risk athletes, tutor them, and help council them on a wide variety of issues. I consider this a tremendous opportunity not only for myself and my personal ambitions, but for student athletes that often use sports as a coping mechanism for a wide array of issues they may be going through. Although this is my first year in this position, I see the potential this role has to really improve the school, and it should be interesting to see how this plays out.
In addition to being the head academic coach, I also started an official SAT preparation program this Fall. After privately tutoring a student this summer, I realized how much SAT prep classes were needed at East Side. After pitching my idea of starting this program, the administration loved it, and gave me the green light. Originally, we had over 65 students sign up for free SAT prep classes (that met on Saturday mornings)! To me, this is yet another indication of how hard our students want to work to attain success, loosely defined. This also reinforced my personal idea that many students want to do well, but are unsure of exactly how to get there and what to do to get them to their next steps in life.
Early in October, I found out that I won a contest to take four students on a shopping spree at American Eagle. After randomly picking four students (and some hectic organization along the way), we all met up at the American Eagle in Jersey City; it was quite an exhilarating experience. I think it is safe to say that all of the involved parties were extremely grateful for this opportunity, and I personally cannot thank Teach For America and American Eagle enough for providing it to them.
My classes are going very well, also. Often times, my classes keep me laughing, especially when we are talking about sports teams, “growing corn,” yelling “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble,” or even using an exuberant amount of Lysol during class. Whether it is a student going back and forth in my first block about how funny I am (or not) or blasting songs to end the week in my fourth block, I recognize how fortunate and blessed I am to teach such a talented, amazing and fun group of students that truly make my day every day.
Between going to Marist, grad school at Seton Hall, running SAT Prep sessions on Saturdays, countless football and soccer games, and even going to my first Bar Mitzvah, I cannot believe how fast the first two months of school went this year. This upcoming week, I am once again privileged to join the Student Council on their annual college visit trip, which I expect to be just as powerfully moving as the previous trips I went on. There have been plenty of “new” things to start this year, but it seems as least one thing is the same: We barely have any school in November. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em I suppose, so: Here’s to No School November!
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.
This past April was one hell of a month. After surviving my first official graduate school residency at Seton Hall during the first weekend, I was looking forward to going to Boston with the East Side High School Student Council on the 11th and 12th. This was my third overnight trip with the group, and, having had incredibly moving experiences the first two times around, I was extremely excited about this one.
With the East Side High School Student Council at Harvard University
In two days, we were able to visit four schools: Harvard, Boston College, Northeastern and Boston University. As was the case with previous trips, it was such an empowering weekend. Although I had a lot of great dialogue with the students during our two day venture throughout Boston, three specific conversations stick out: The first was at BC, when we were eating lunch. I was sitting across from a senior who recently moved to the United States from Ecuador seven months ago. We talked about the concept of poverty being relative, and how he plans to navigate going to college over the course of the next couple of years. Afterwards, on the “T” from BC to the North End, I had another great conversation with a sophomore that I often describe as having “unlimited potential.” We talked about college and what it takes to be successful, and ended with discussing possible college visits for the summer. This kid is only a sophomore and he has already seen more than two-dozen major universities! He is also very intellectually and emotionally mature; to be honest, he reminds me a lot of myself when I was in high school. I think he is going to be very successful one day.
A fantastic presentation about the admissions process to the ESHS Student Council at Boston College
The following morning, on the way home, I had such a powerful conversation with a group of students about changing the image of East Side and Newark in general. They were explaining some of the ideas they had to make their school a better place through different events and activities. For me, this resonated well with what Arne Duncan said recently: “Students are today’s leaders. Your voice and recommendations to re-imagine our school experience is vital.” I think we as a society discount the opinion of students far too often, and if we really want to make our education system the cream of the crop again, we must empower students and give them some autonomy to make a difference. Regardless, I genuinely enjoy chaperoning these trips so much, although I sometimes do feel a bit bad; I often feel that I learn way more from these amazing kids than I could ever teach them in a million years.
At the 2013 NCTM National Conference in Denver
The following week, my friend (who happens to be my boss) and I went to Denver, Colorado for the 2013 NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) National Conference. What another great trip! We did so much in the five days we were there, as we ate at many fantastic restaurants (including Sam’s No. 3, Osteria Marco and Vesta Dipping Grill), saw a great deal of sites (including the DaVinci Museum, the state capital of Colorado and the 16thstreet mall) and had plenty of exotic food (including rattlesnake and raw kangaroo!). The conference itself was inspirational and moving, and gave me many great resources and ideas to implement in my classroom. It was great to network with teachers from all different types of schools all across the country. Some highlights of the conference include a Harvard Professor lecturing about the concept of fixed vs. growth mindsets, and Dan Meyer’s (author of the well-known “Math Class Needs a Makeover” TED talk) presentation on perplexity. We also planned it out so that we could attend two sporting events before we left, as we got to see the Avs play at the Pepsi Center and the Rockies play at Coors Field. I would be remiss if I did not mention that we got to see the Lawlor family-which was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the trip.
With Mike and the Lawlor family at Coors Field
As April drew to a close, I visited my beloved Marist in Poughkeepsie for one last weekend before the end of the academic year. As with high school, I am sure that the longer I am out of college, the less it will feel like home. But as of right now, I sure do miss Marist College. After catching up with a bunch of friends, we went to Darby’s, had some Irish Nacho’s and wings, and had a load of great laughs along the way. As I said goodbye to all of my friends, I reminded them to enjoy “their last three weeks at the best place in the world.” I think that sums up my feelings about my alma mater pretty well. And that was the end of a crazy month that I will remember for a long time. I now officially have less than eight weeks before my first year of teaching is under my belt. It has been a great run, but I am still wondering: Where has the time gone?
After spending years in different classrooms observing, student teaching, tutoring and volunteering, I was both very anxious and excited to actually have a class of my own this year. Last week signaled the end of the first marking period; what an interesting first quarter it has been.
A week before school started, I finally received the keys to my classroom. When I walked in for the first time, the room was nothing like I had envisioned at all. I had six desks in my class, there was graffiti on all of the walls, everything was dirty, and to say I was disappointed would be an understatement. But it the midst of all the ruble, I saw the layout of a great classroom. I knew I only had a few days before school started, so I got to work right away trying to make the best classroom with the materials I had. I started by throwing away all of the broken furniture, ripped posters and frog dissection kits (you read that correctly) that were clogging up the room, and began wiping down everything covered in dirt and dust. I re-did the bulletin boards (which came out very well thanks to my experience from my RA days), found some new inspirational posters to hang up, and strategically hung them to cover gaping holes in the walls.
Another aspect of my classroom that was rather disconcerting was the presence of a blackboard in my room. I never liked teaching with chalk, as my clothes always got very dusty and the chalk made me cough a lot as well. I decided that I needed to somehow turn the blackboard into a whiteboard, but I didn’t know how. I started by calling some companies that professionally installed white boards, but the cost was way too high (a couple of thousand dollars). As I was telling my co-workers about my idea of getting a white board, another TFA corps member told me about special white-board paint that I could buy that would easily turn my blackboard into a whiteboard. I went to the store and, for $50.00, I bought two cans of white-board paint, some paint brushes and other painting supplies. I asked some of my students to help me out, and we stayed around, ate pizza and painted for a few hours after school on a Friday. The board came out so great! Seeing my students want to stay late after school on a Friday to help me paint was one of the most memorable moments in my teaching career so far.
After the whiteboard was done, I felt that our class would benefit from a projector so that I could show powerpoint presentations and clips from Youtube, helping make math class more fun and engaging. Once again, we had no money for a $600.00 projector, but I knew how beneficial it would be to my students. After talking to many people about possible fundraising ideas to raise money, I went on Donors Choose and asked for an LCD projector for my room. Nine donors funded the $684.48 project in less than 48 hours, and the projector was at East Side a few days later. With the projector in hand, the white board ready, and my room starting to actually feel like a classroom, I knew that I was going to be able to drastically improve the effectiveness of student learning in the coming weeks.
People are often surprised when I tell them how much I am enjoying working in an inner-city high school in Newark, NJ. Is everyday a great day? No. Are there many frustrating moments and days when I go home with a splitting headache? Of course. But there are so many small victories day to day that makes it all “worth it.” Last week, for example, one of my students said to me: “Mr. Paulsen, you have a gift. We walk into your class and we are so excited because you are the only teacher we like.” Now who knows how true that may be, but it made my day regardless.
Every week I walk into school and I am inspired by the stories of my students and the struggles they face everyday. The more I walk the halls and the more students I get to know, the more potential I see in these students that, born into different circumstances, would be competing with the top students our country has to offer. After working in an urban district for three months and seeing what is possible, I believe that every student can learn and be successful if they went to a school that valued the importance of school culture and had great teachers. I believe now more than ever that “One day, every child in this nation will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education.”