When I graduated college, the only thing I really knew was that I wanted to move to New York City. Although I had just graduated with a degree in psychology, I started applying to a random variety of jobs in the city – most not suited to me at all. I finally refocused on finding something more in line with what I had learned and found a fresh-out-of-school gig working one-on-one with children in early intervention programs. I loved it. I felt like I was helping children everyday. Still, I knew it wasn’t permanent, especially because the job was a solid 80 miles away from NYC in my hometown, Doylestown, PA. I decided to start applying for a Masters program in NYC, again not entirely sure exactly what I wanted to do for me career. But my experience in my first job led me down somewhat of a particular path. I applied to school psychology programs, social work programs, and education programs. I finally decided – and I’m so glad I did – to pursue childhood and special education through NYU. Through that program I met the most amazing cohort of soon-to-be teachers who went on to change the world one kid at a time. I love getting all of their updates on social media. I actually wound up working along some of them at my first job. I consider them some of my closest friends, even though I rarely see them these days (insert sad face emoji here). I also met the most inspirational, dedicated, and passionate veteran teachers who really helped shaped me into the educator I am today. And finally, I taught some pretty incredible students, many who live a very different life than I did growing up.
I was never wealthy by any means growing up, but I know that I was quite privileged. I lived in a wealthy town, went to three Blue Ribbon Schools from elementary to high school, and had access to ALL THE BOOKS right from the womb. Reading was a priority, and we always had food on the table. My mom was also a teacher and was around all the time while we were growing up. As a family, we went to the pool in the summer, participated in girl scouts and boy scouts, played sports, went to the park, rode bikes, and visited Disney World. It was truly charmed, though without perspective, I didn’t really know that at the time.
There was very little diversity where I grew up, which guided my decision to branch out from the bubbles of my hometown and my liberal arts college. I mean, I was selfish in the fact that after college I wanted to live in New York City (because DUH), but also because I wanted to challenge myself as a human and a teacher. It was going to be different. I knew that one day I’d be back in the suburbs, but I’d remember and use the experience in all of my future teaching endeavors (although I didn’t realize quite how challenging it would be to go back).
I taught at an incredibly diverse school in Brooklyn for 3 years – plus another year for student teaching. The students spoke about 28 different home languages, which is why it’s unnecessary and often impossible for English Language Teachers to actually speak a child’s home language when teaching them English. That’s hard for people to understand if you haven’t worked in such a diverse place. The ESL teachers were some of the best teachers I’ve ever known. So incredibly effective, talented, creative, and smart. They did not speak Urdu or Mandarin or most of the other languages spoken in their classes. Possibly Spanish, but that is besides the point.
The point is that I had to work really hard to reach these students, and even harder to reach their families. It would be so easy to write them off and say, “well, they should probably learn English.” Okay, maybe, but it’s really not that easy. The school offered Adult English classes, but I’m going to go ahead and say learning one of the most complicated languages in the world is not an overnight process, and if you want to improve your life by moving to our country, don’t let a language barrier stop you. I don’t think it stops a lot of Americans from moving elsewhere. I really don’t want to politicize, so I digress. I had to find translators, translate important documents, and use older brothers and sisters, sometimes, to reach families. But the kids mattered to me, so I didn’t give up on them. And that, everyday, mattered to them.
It can also be easy to say that a parent doesn’t care, or a child is lazy. It’s not easy, but I learned in graduate school to stay away from those assumptions. There are so many outside influences in a child’s life, and I wish I could control them all. But I truly and very obviously cannot. I also can’t assume a child’s or parent’s motive. What I can control is the work I do within my classroom to motivate and inspire. I can control my perspective, and remind myself to “check it” when I feel like giving up on a certain situation. I don’t really know what’s going on at home, and sometimes, I’m a child’s only hope of receiving a smile or encouraging pep talk on any given day.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had so many struggles in the classroom. I’ve seen kids from all different backgrounds, and some of them were not easy. I don’t like to give up, but I also know when it’s time to ask for help. And I also know that it’s okay to admit when I haven’t handled things the best way I could have. It’s about progress, not perfection. Sometimes teaching is more about learning and growing than it is about “instructing.”
I’ve rambled and gone off on a tangent here. But my point is, in my six years of teaching, I have not seen it all. But the more I see and the more I do, the more I learn about people different than me, that come from different places, speak different languages, and face very different challenges in life. New York provided me that perspective. Whether I’m teaching in an urban setting or not, it never helps to make assumptions based on the way people dress, speak, or what they let their children watch on TV (I mean, I have my opinions on this, but sometimes the third child gets away with a lot). Whatever the situation, I’ve learned that my one axis of control is myself. I ask, when the days are hard, “what can I do better?” I don’t ask, “what can the parent do better?” OK fine maybe I do, but I try to move on from this very quickly because I have zero control over it.
I miss the city almost everyday, until I go back and visit on a 90 degree day in July and smell the festering sewage downtown. The city gave me my first job, and it was the best experience. I learned so much about being a teacher from the best out there, and so much about myself as a human in a diverse world. Assumptions are easy to make, and we should always try to make the world a better and safer place, but it all starts with me.
What places or experiences have given you a greater perspective? Talk below!