Reflection on My First Year of Teaching

July 4, 2009

After teaching 55 Beninese students in a cement classroom without a single resource [or a roof], after teaching detached and zapped Korean teenagers, after teaching co-ed classes in segregated Yemen, I didn’t think that teaching young men detained in a New York City jail would be that difficult. Different, sure – I knew I would have to tweak styles and transfer skills, but that’s what I’m good at. If I were a superhero, adapting would be my superpower. One thing I keep forgetting, however, is how expectations can mess with your head. When you walk into something expecting it won’t kill you, it might.

This year, my first year of teaching in New York, was difficult. I teach English as a second language, and had never imagined a class containing all levels from can’t say hello to fluent like me. And while my head knew that teaching in jail would mean a constant cycling of students coming in and students going out – I hadn’t quite imagined how those fluctuations, combined with the diversity of levels, would have me teaching ‘My name is Jose. I am from Mexico.’ over and over and over again. A number of my students had never attended school beyond the second grade. About half were functionally illiterate. Many seemed to have undiagnosed learning disabilities. The hardest challenge, however, was that none of them knew their future – which makes the whole idea of developing a curriculum to deliver students to[wards] that future somewhat … challenging. And then there is the fact that we are a school, funded by the same Department of Education charged with readying every student who comes through the doors for college.


I find myself sitting in a classroom with twelve 20 year olds, many of whom can not read in any language, and my job is to get them ready for college. Gilberto might be deported on Thursday, in which case he says he’s really not sure what he’ll do next. Eddy hopes to go home to his mom in the Bronx, but there’s a chance he’ll do 8 to 10 years upstate first. Angel discovered artistic skills in jail that he never had time to develop outside – even if he is released to his mother’s custody in Brooklyn, he’s undocumented, with a record, and will have trouble getting funding for school.


My challenge isn’t adapting myself to this environment. My challenge is adapting the word education to meet the distinct wants and needs of each individual student. Most of them need communicative skills – not a big part of the Department of Education’s goal – but my students need them to survive in jail, and to navigate the streets on their release. My challenge is making this space – this corner of the jail – the best part of my students’ day – a part of the day where they grow and evolve, rather than just sit, and wait, and lose a week’s worth of ramen noodles in one game of dominoes.

Were there successes? Ricardo and Angel both came into class unable to make one English language sentence, and left bilingual. Gilberto – about whom my Teachers College mentor said he’d almost never seen a student with such a low level – can have a conversation with you today and remember that conversation tomorrow. Eusevio can build sentences. Eddy’s writing improved 200%. Jovanny showed us that everything he didn’t know was everything he’d never been taught; whatever I taught him, he then knew. Did I do this? Did I teach these things, this language? Maybe a little. But I was part of building the space. I created the opportunities, I structured the practice, I encouraged the development, and they learned. I don’t think it’s fair to say that I had these successes, but we had these successes.

Does my teaching – does our school – make an impact on our community? From what I’ve seen in the past year, jail subtracts. Whatever you go in with, you come out with less. Guys come out with fewer self-management skills, fewer job skills, less self-confidence, less self-respect, less of a sense that the actions they take can affect a positive result. I really believe that we do make an impact. The guys who come down to school – those who sit through my ESL class and learn communicative, job, and life skills in English, those who come to my ELA class and improve their reading and writing and sit for the GED exam – receive an additive benefit from their time in detention. They walk out knowing that they can make tiny decisions that will change the shape of their days and their opportunities in life. If that’s all they get, that’s a lot.

None of the ESL students are ready for college yet, but Jovanny and Angel and Ricardo are close. Miller’s working on publishing his poetry. Covington got his GED and is taking classes in Brooklyn. Sergio is at LaGuardia Community College. Small steps – individual steps – in a positive direction.


The Train

June 22, 2008

Waiting for the A my attention is caught by a teenage boy. He’s gorgeous. He has long hair and a little rat-like mustache that wouldn’t be attractive on anyone but him. I can’t stop staring. He has a mess of bracelets on both arms, and his jeans are covered, covered with paint. If I were 17, I would be in love with him. At 33 I’m a little bit in love with him, but this is teacher-love; I’m just glad he’s there, with his seedy mustache and painted pants. I hope whatever self-confidence allows him to wear all those bracelets is is infectious. I hope he makes other people feel a little bit less restricted.

Somewhere in the process of staring and thinking these things, I realize that he must think I’m a nut job. I’m wearing clean adult clothes, not showing any tattoos, and look like this kid’s opposite. There’s everything special about him, and nothing special about me. I wonder what he thinks about me looking at him. He’s a kid. He probably thinks I’m frowning at his mustache, his jeans, his being on the subway in the early afternoon on the subway. Maybe he thinks I’m judging him, and maybe he thinks judgmental people like me are the biggest problem in this world. While I sit here thinking that kids like him are the salvation.


One Month In

June 5, 2008

I love New York. No, scratch that, I love Harlem. Or forget that, I love this north side, where every one is a different shade of human and the guys running the bagel shops are Chinese, the Chinese restaurants sell plantains because the Dominicans buy them, and the Yemenis sell beer in the bodegas. It’s like living in a Benetton ad, except for the most part it’s a down-and-out Benetton, like if Benetton was the modeling agency that ran the Dereliqe campaign from Zoolander. Walking by a cafe at 7AM I see a big black man in a big cheap suit chomping on a big cigar. I break out grinning because he looks great, and he grins back because he knows he looks great. The architecture is stunning and surprising: any wrong turn you take, any new side street you find yourself on, yields an eye onto someone’s once upon a time good idea in building. Getting lost in New York is like walking through a permanent display of senior projects at design school; not all of these are epic and memorable, it’s more like a walk-through of architects’ dreams from the night before.

I don’t love New York. Not for me, some parts, parts filled with white people eating salad. I like where I live. I love where I live. I’m lucky to be here. I’m where I should be.