Kate, Clinically Rich, Childhood Education
In undergrad I was determined to do Teach for America. I got in and they based me in Phoenix, Arizona. I quit after six months. People had been pretty nice to me throughout my first 22 years of life and then I was in a position where I was bullied by my co-workers, the veteran teachers. I had no defenses for it. I moved back to my hometown of Seattle, got into marketing, and put my teaching dreams on hold. When I moved to New York, I had a social media marketing job already lined up. I was good at marketing and found a lot of success in the career and enjoyed my co-workers a lot. But I always missed what could've happened had I been able to stay in that classroom and really see it through.
After 5 years in New York I decided to give teaching another try. I wanted to be able to tell right away if this was what I wanted to do. The clinically rich education program puts you immediately in a classroom, whereas most programs wait till the final year. There’s no better way to know if this is what I wanted than doing actual fieldwork. One thing I learned at Teach for America was that every teacher's experience is not just different, but it's wildly different. Every combination of 25-30 kids is going to create a totally different culture and dynamic. Then you add the community, the school, and yourself into that mix, and the challenges become wildly unique. So I knew that the only way to get those teacher reflexes was to actually be in a classroom. In New York City, I didn't have a lot interactions with children. My friends don't have kids, and you forget that kids are just as deep, complex, interesting humans as adults. They're just smaller. I'm not good at giving clear directions. When kids aren't doing what they're supposed to do, I tend to offer this passive observation in which I'll describe what they're doing and hope they'll take that description to mean that they're supposed to be doing something else, instead of actually telling them what they need to be doing. It’s so Seattle of me. That's a huge thing I'm excited about with this profession, is being forced to become an incredibly clear communicator. The stakes now are much higher than they felt in my previous career. The fact that I have two years of my life where I consistently focus on how to communicate very clearly is something that I know will ripple into all parts of my life. My advisor’s told me to find something that works for me within my own personality, because kids can smell inauthenticity very, very easily, and then you lose them. And they want you to succeed as much as you do yourself. Just on Wednesday, a cooperating teacher announced that I would be teaching the whole next day, and two kids that were sitting nearby turned to me and immediately gave a pep talk. "You're going to be really nervous and I understand that, but what you have to do is just calm yourself down, have a goal in mind, and work towards it." I was blown away. Kids are awesome.
Reva, Childhood Special Ed Long Program
My brother and I went to the same school in India. He is two years younger than me. I did really well, but he wasn’t motivated to study and he would score poorly on tests. The teachers reactions were, “He is slow to pick up. He is somewhat dull.” They put him in a separate class that taught the same material, but only more slowly. And it was a problem for me because at home there is a certain tension that comes with one sibling doing so well and the other that doesn’t. And this was normal in many families we knew that there would be one child that does really well, and the other child does not. And nobody ever questioned the schools or what went on in the classroom. But you tried to sort of remedy that through external tutoring or by sending your child to a different school. I think that somehow stuck with me. I used to work in IT. I was an employee of IBM for 15-years. It was a comfortable job, and I was good at my job. But there was always an emotional connection missing.
My daughter is now in fourth grade. When I started looking at public schools for her in kindergarten, I got inundated with brochures about what was so special or unique about each school, so you could make an informed decision. Up until then I had no idea that there was anything called special education -- a way to include people who are different and to try and normalize their experiences in school. I immediately thought back to several of these people I knew in India. If you were different, you were sort of isolated or somehow removed from the mainstream. So for me to come here and see that there is another way you can approach education, and perhaps limit or end how some people feel marginalized – a light turned on. I started following all the special education committee meetings. I would just go and sit and listen to what parents said. I eventually went and met the coordinator for Special Education in White Plains. She said, “So it looks like you’re really interested in not just learning about the laws and rules, but you’re also interested in how it works in practice. You should go into a school and observe what happens.” So she signed a permission for me to go into one of the schools. I would go on a Friday morning, and I would stay until lunch every Friday for five months. I got to see inside a special education classroom, and how students were served by so many professionals. I asked myself, “Where were all these people when I was in school?” That’s the basic genesis of how I decided to get my master’s and change professions. It is a challenge because between school, work, and being a mother, there is no real downtime. You have to recalibrate yourself to say, “This is the new normal,” and not gripe about it too much. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’m never around to pick my daughter up when she comes back from school. It breaks my heart. When I used to work in IBM I used to get to do all these things. I could put her on the bus. I could get her off the bus. I could do flex time. I could work from home. Now there are many nights when I go back home at around 8:00 or 8:30, and I get to see my daughter for about a half hour before she goes to bed. So it feels like a hardship, and it is. And we try to compensate for it by being together a lot on the weekends. Lately I started looking at Indian schools. It’s been a while, so I thought maybe they’ve come a long way. But still the ratio of schools that do inclusion is very low. If you look at a major city, like Delhi, there are maybe three schools. The more I learn about it, the more I’m committed to doing something in India. I want to open a school there. Doing this master’s is a good experience for me because if I get into a public school as a classroom teacher with a lot of special needs kids, that’ll give me insights into how I would want my own school to work. But it’s such a pipe dream, really, because my daughter’s growing up here. I’m talking about doing this after sending her to college, so I’m really dreaming long-term. I’m dreaming big.
Eileen, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing
I grew up with sound but I lost my hearing when I was eight years old. I started regressing academically, so my parents made the decision to send me to a school for the deaf up in Massachusetts. I was there for three years and it completely changed my life. The teachers were able to get down to my level where I had lost everything, and catch me up. They gave me the tools that I needed to succeed, not just academically but also personally. They instilled a lot of confidence in me, and they instilled knowledge -- a broad knowledge base. They made a huge impact on me. I knew that I wanted, in some way, to give back. When I went off to college, I kind of veered off the track a little bit. I decided to go into psychology just because I really loved the inner workings of the mind. And then after I finished undergrad, that’s when I decided to go for school counseling and that opened the door to education. Life works in such mysterious ways, that it just so worked out that here I am now doing what I love and giving back.
Lorendo, Childhood Special Education
I’ve been teaching for 20 years. I was a school principal in Guyana. I had just been promoted before I left to come here four years ago. I never wanted to be a teacher, I always wanted to be an air hostess or a lawyer. There was a principal living in my area and he encouraged my mom to send me to teach. So here I am, and I have to admit I do love it; especially the interacting with the kids and parents. Now I teach fourth grade at a private school in Brooklyn, while I get my master’s degree at night. Teaching in America is much different, and a bit more challenging. At home, you can really talk to the kids and they will not talk back at you -- that’s the kind of discipline they have. If you found one kid who talks back in the entire school, that was a lot. Here, the kids sometimes say what they want to say and you must decide where you're going to take it from there. I had to learn to adjust … I have to do more listening now.
Chris, EdD in Instructional Leadership
I am serving as an assistant principal at West Bronx Academy for the Future, a 6 through 12 school. With high school students, I see there are a lot of competing priorities. Kids might live far away and their travel time is significant to get to school. Or they might be working, so that’s something that’s competing. Those are big competitive forces that teachers have to deal with, and it's hard. You can’t tell a kid not to work if he has to work. But you have to try and find what successes they will be able to show you. It’s really important to focus on the most granular thing kids are having trouble with, and then grow that out to allow them ability to taste success. Everything is layered, and you can measure your success if you can show them that, ‘hey, if you can do this, now let's think about it at this next level, and even think about it in this next level.’ That is something really powerful for both me and my students at the same time.
Cathleen, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing
In 1975 I was at a woman’s concert. It was summer. It was hotter than hell. I was into jazz and performing at that time. For this show there was a woman on stage signing. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, and I said, “I can do that.” And I did. I’ve been signing for thirty-five years. I’m a full-time sign language interpreter. Anywhere people go, I go. So I do a lot of doctor’s appointments. I do a lot of education. I do a lot of work on theatre. I work the Paper Mill Playhouse three times a year. I’ve done Broadway. I’ve done “Beauty and the Beast.” I’m doing Shakespeare in the Park. I’ve done a million and a half shows. I don’t have to be the star. They place the signers between the stage and the deaf group, so they see me and the stage at the same time.
With signing, I’m trying to capture the meaning and their affect simultaneously. Just by saying the words themselves doesn’t really translate the meaning in sign language. The trick is to get a verb and a noun, and then you build from there. So you get the main concept, and then you build out from it. It’s almost like the center of a flower. You want the core of the flower, and then you start adding the leaves and everything else. I feel that there’s not enough teachers for deaf children that are fluent enough in sign language, not only in New York City but in America. If you move to France tomorrow and sat in a French class without a translator, how much would you learn? Probably not a lot. You’d pick up some, but you wouldn’t pick up everything that the French kid next to you is getting, who is also going home and speaking French. The problem deaf kids face is that a lot of their parents aren’t deaf. They’re hearing; and a lot of these parents don’t learn sign language. Add that to a poor interpreter in a classroom, you need to ask, what do they learn? Then they’re tested like every other student to be promoted to the next level. Something’s wrong. The deaf kids are always playing catch-up. Two negatives make a positive in math, but that doesn’t work here. I think as a school teacher we should either be taught, or we should stop and think about it for a half a second: “Gee, if the kid can’t hear, they might want the paper in advance. They might want it the day before. What a great idea to share it with the interpreter. Gee, you think?” Just an idea. I know a lot of smart deaf adults. And they obviously had family support and they had tutors, and they were in a different socioeconomic class. If you have a socioeconomic class that can’t afford tutors, and parents don’t take the time to teach themselves to sign along with their kid, then the kid’s only getting one third of the tripod. Where’s the other two thirds going to come from? I want to fill this gap one deaf kid at a time. I really want to help.
Dina, Childhood Special Education
Before this war nobody in the States knew much about Syrians, because Syrians never had a reason to leave their country. I was born and raised here, but I'm very, very tied to Syria. My dad and a friend came here to finish medical school. There’s this small group of doctors from Aleppo, Syria that are working now in the States doing amazing things. They're all like super heroes. One of my Dad’s friends runs an organization called Smiles. I followed them on Facebook for months; I would constantly check their feed and see these pictures of refugees that just moved me entirely. But pictures weren’t enough. I felt I couldn’t understand the whole picture, so I said “what the heck, I am just chilling in my bed right now, and if I'm not going to do something I don't know how we can expect anybody to do anything.” So I reached out to my Dad’s friend and I said I want to go help. He agreed to it, as long as my Dad agreed – which he did, despite being very worried.
I got the whole community involved. I let everyone know I was going and most people were thrilled because they could trust me, because there are dozens of organizations that are claiming to help the refugees, but a lot of them are taking money to fund the organization itself and not helping the refugees. I wouldn’t call it stealing, but it’s definitely not what a lot of people think they’re getting with their donation money. What I was doing was much more grass roots, volunteer-based. Initially, medical volunteers were sent because people were coming off of the boats in Lesbos, Greece, injured. But they also needed more Arabic speakers, because, believe it or not, there were actually very few Syrian refugees when I was there. I should have expected it. When there's an open border situation anybody is going to try to take advantage of that. I was seeing Afghani's, Iraqi's, and Moroccans, but the most were Iranian's speaking Persian. Our team was all stunned. It was crazy. They all claimed to be Syrian. They adopted this kind of false identity of being Syrian, because of the preferential refugee status Syrians received by fleeing a worn torn country. That’s when security started to get really tight. It would break my heart because I understand exactly what was going on. Maybe they're not fleeing war, but they're fleeing something. This is human nature. I ended up staying in Lesbos for a total of 10 days. I helped with translation and I just basically worked under the hands of the doctors and nurses. It was an insane experience. But the funny thing is, I realize I was less nervous there than I am here right now. I have one semester to go and I’m still so intimidated by teaching. I have a very practical father, and he influences me to think very practically about everything. Teaching, and special education especially, is practical: after school I have a job, it's good, and I'm giving back. I could have done my Ph.D. in anthropology and it could have made me happier in the moment, but at the end of the day, special education is something that is just so good and valuable, and there's such a shortage of special education teachers. I grew up with a younger sister that has an IEP, an individualized educational program, which means she gets extra help and has a learning disability. Initially, she inspired me to want to know more about this and how I could help her. My advisors recommended that I pursue special education, and I’m glad I did. Before it was scary. You hear the word disability and you think the worse. But now I understand a learning disability is only limiting inside the classroom. Face-to-face my sister is extremely creative and very thoughtful. In many ways she’s advanced for her age. Yet, in the classroom, she gets anxiety. The learning disability simply means that she can't go the conventional route in school. It means that learning-disabled people actually need intensive instruction. It means that they probably need a little bit more time. Just more, a little bit more.
Susan, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing
I've been in writing and editing my whole career up till now. I started out in LA as a correspondent with People Magazine. I was with Modern Maturing Magazine for ten years at various levels of editor. I was with Bon Appetit as managing editor. My husband is a writer and cartoonist, and we did two historical graphic novels for children, and that was what got me interested in working with kids. We would go to a lot of elementary schools and talk about the books, about writing and rewriting, and the process of putting a book together. I loved it. I got so much energy from the kids. To me there is a sweet spot around fourth, fifth, and sixth grades because they're so curious, uncensored, and eager to participate. They want to ask questions, and answer questions. They want to be heard.
You hit 50 and you realize you don't have an infinite amount of time. How do you want to spend it? Do you want to just keep shoveling the stuff? Or do you want to do something else that's got more human content to it? It’s sort of a cliché to say, but I was at a certain point in my life where I asked, is this all there is? I'm a fairly empathetic person in my own life, but I hadn't used that in my working life. What I saw myself doing in these classrooms was communicating and helping others to communicate through teaching. It’s a much more human offshoot to the communication work I've done. In the deaf and hard of hearing program, this idea strikes an even deeper level. I've had an interest in it for a long time. People laugh when I say this, but I played Helen Keller in high school in The Miracle Worker. And that was the first time I had this revelation about how people were experiencing the world in a much different way than I was. To learn about the character I went to the John Tracy Clinic and met with deaf children. That experience set off a spark that just took a long time to come to fruition. Before that, like many hearing people, I saw deafness as a tragedy. It seems obvious; of course everyone would want to be hearing. But then you realize there are people who are absolutely happy the way they are. We judge things by our own standards, and to realize that they’re not victims opened this whole cultural and political aspect that is of real interest to me. So, the whole onion around deaf and hard of hearing is a big part of the inspiration behind this life change; the kids are the other part. Whenever I start to doubt if I'm doing the right thing, the minute I get with the kids it's immediately clear why I'm doing it. The energy comes resurfaces, especially when I feel a sort of mind meld with the person I’m working with. There is always going to be kids that make it difficult to get that communication going, but they all need to be heard. They need to feel listened to and valued, and you need to meet them where they are and not try make them something they're not or treat them as if they're something they're not. There is no one size fits all. So far I’m finding that I could do that pretty well with kids. More importantly, I want to, and that's 50 percent of it.