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Glancing Back, Looking Forward: A New Teacher Reflects

[Teacher Man is the pseudonym of a second-year teacher at an intermediate school in Brooklyn.]

The end of the school year is always a bit chaotic for students and teachers alike. The numerous activities going on at school, from graduation to end of year parties and trips, keep everyone busy and the sunshine outside begins to draw all eyes to the windows as summer makes its grand entrance. It is also a time for reflection on both the year that has passed and that which is yet to come. Eighth graders are gearing up for the new challenges of high school, high school graduates are preparing for higher education and their future careers, and teachers are already beginning to think about their unit and lesson planning for the next year.

For me, this time of year is more reflective than ever. I am just now completing my second year in the New York City school system, which is also the culmination of my training as a New York City Teaching Fellow. I graduated from Hunter College with my MA in Teaching English as a Second Language last week, and I am on my way to becoming a fully certified and appointed teacher. I have learned so much in the last two years that it’s almost difficult to remember how I felt walking into my first classroom two summers ago not really knowing much about my profession. The experience has been life changing, to say the least, but also more enriching and humanizing than I ever could have imagined.

My story really begins in the spring of 2007, when I went from being a dissatisfied corporate employee at a luxury goods company to an aspiring teacher. I decided at 25 that the corporate world was just not a fulfilling place for me, and applied to the Teaching Fellows program. That summer I began student teaching, and come September I found myself in a classroom in Flatbush, Brooklyn with two very boisterous groups of seventh and eighth grade Haitian students who really enjoyed mocking my continental French accent, and rejoiced at my attempts to speak Haitian Creole. While that first year was challenging, and I would ultimately end up leaving the school because of a lack of school leadership, my students taught me so much about who I am, and why I chose to do what I am doing. To bring smiles to students’ faces, to help them understand a concept from multiple perspectives, to give them a broader vision of the world they live in and to unlock the possibilities that exist for them, these are the rewards that help us teachers get through those really tough days when everything seems to go wrong.

This year, I started teaching at my second school, a middle school in East Williamsburg. The difference has been like night and day. Here, there is great school leadership, a clear vision for student achievement, a staff that collaborates and works together. I think a big reason for this school’s success is both the dedicated staff and a principal who taught in the building for many years before taking the helm. Teaching in a school that was failing my first year, and then coming to a school that is thriving, while still dealing with the challenges faced by urban schools, has given me a unique perspective on why some schools work and others do not.

As I reflect on my own pedagogy, and revel in how far it has come after two years of on the job experience and master’s coursework, I am also drawn into the national debate on education reform with the same focus on reflection. What needs to be done to fix this country’s education system, or even just this city’s? Of course, there is no easy answer to this question, but clearly partisan differences must get put aside so that we can find new solutions. If there is one thing I have learned as a new teacher, it is the power of collaboration and the value of veteran teachers who can truly help new teachers to find their footing. But even veteran teachers must keep themselves open to new ideas in an ever changing field such as ours. Change is inevitable, and resisting it so rigidly can only do harm. As reflective practitioners, we must stay on top of new research and methods, while building on the success we have had with the tried and the true. Moving forward, I will always glance back, but I will keep my eyes locked on a brighter future for the children of our city.