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Are You Experienced?

Brooklyn Arts Academy was not my first school. Indeed, having grown up in suburban Chicago and attended college in Minnesota, I never considered the possibility of living in New York. Still, when I decided to move there to join my girlfriend (now wife) I thought I’d be prepared for it.

I always wanted to be a social studies teacher and teach in an urban public school. Unlike the many college-graduates who experiment with teaching through programs like Teach for America, I chose to get my teaching certificate as an undergraduate. I spent my fifth year of college student-teaching at a public high school of about 1400 students in St. Paul, Minn., and was hired there the following year.

I taught in St. Paul for three years. They were not easy years, but I learned a lot. The school was strapped for cash and teachers were often asked to do more with less: Class sizes were large (up to 44 students in one class) and I was given a quota for photocopies. I taught challenging students: immigrant students who struggled with language, special education students who struggled to fit in, students who struggled with drugs, and students who struggled to sit still. These were necessary challenges for a novice teacher.

As the fresh-faced rookie I was taken under the wings of older teachers, who looked after me and out for me. My relationship with the administration was impersonal, but there was never any question that they would support me if I needed help. With 40-plus students in a class, classroom management was a definite challenge. But there were clear protocols to follow when situations did arise and I quickly learned how and when to use them. Because students understood the consequences of misbehavior, I did not have to use them often.

Having large classes made it difficult to build personal relationships with students or cater to their individual needs. Once again though, the school’s structures helped mitigate these obstacles. For one, students had a wide range of choices among elective classes and extracurricular activities. The students I got to know best were the ones I coached in track, supervised in the weight room, or served as an advisor. There were athletic options for sporty kids, drama and music options for artistic types, and an array of other options ranging from anime club to auto-shop to math team and debate.

Furthermore, there were “honors” classes and “regular” classes, but the honors classes were not exclusive. Any student could take an honors class in any subject and it was not uncommon for students to switch classes early on in order to find the right fit. Students did slip through the cracks, but by and large the school offered something for everyone.

After three years, I was still the youngest teacher on staff but I had grown tremendously as a professional. I had evolved from a first-year teacher who regularly suffered panic attacks on Sunday night to a respected educator who was embraced as part of the local community and honored when I left. In my first year, a colleague asked me how I was handling “the crushing weight of it all.” I thought this was an eloquent description of the never-ending responsibilities of teaching. After three years of teaching in St. Paul, I thought I’d built up the strength to lift that weight. I was wrong.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.