Leaving the information technology industry when I was 23 was an easy decision as I had a profound need to do more with my life than make money. I quickly landed a job at Far Rockaway High School with no experience or understanding of where my path would take me except for the idealistic belief that I could help create change.
I loved teaching at Far Rockaway for the three years I was there — well, maybe not at first. For the first month of my teaching career, I cried every day, wondering if I made the right choice. The inner-city students I taught tried my patience and heart, testing my commitment, until one day it all changed. Because I was truly concerned for my students, I think my dedication was evident, and after I didn’t run screaming from the building after the first month, the students became protective. And because I had little experience in the classroom, I took advice and help wherever I could get it, letting my natural ability to connect with people and my passion for teaching English come through. With the help of the UFT Teacher Center at my school and several inspirational colleagues, I got involved and learned quickly on the job.
Now, 11 years later, I can’t imagine being anything but an educator. It is as much a part of my identity as my role as mother. In the last decade, I have seen three different schools, six principals, thousands of students and serious change, both positive and disconcerting. My commitment to the education of students hasn’t changed and neither has my willingness to do whatever it takes to make sure my students “get it.” Having lived through a number of initiatives the city has imposed (not all bad), I have managed to take what I feel works and leave the rest because I know that “aha” moment is always just a breath away. My humility and curiosity don’t allow me to call myself a master teacher, but it is my goal: to be one of those people whom kids remember for helping them find their voices.
My title as teacher has expanded as well. First, as low man on the totem pole, I was given the toughest students, and much to everyone’s surprise, I rose and so did the kids. I got a reputation for being able to teach the hardest, the ones others deemed as unteachable. They showed up for my class when they wouldn’t show up for anyone else’s. Eagerly, I did everything, not short of making an idiot of myself to make learning English worthwhile and even fun by singing to my classes or telling anecdotes of my childhood that showed me in a more human light. I stood on desks. I came dressed in costume. I participated in their lives.
Now, at World Journalism Preparatory School, I teach Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, run a newspaper program that I started at my school, and act as the New York State director and a certification commissioner for the Journalism Education Association. My reputation at my school is a carefully crafted mixture of challenge and care. The students both revel and squeal under the weight of complicated tasks required of my courses, always coming out the other side able to critically think and plan through rigorous tasks. My colleagues and I have a healthy respect for each other as I am equally as eager to help them if they ask.
There are many changes still looming on the horizon — more projects engineered outside the classroom and piloted by companies, integration of the Common Core, and larger classes and diminished resources because of budget cuts. However, it is still possible to have an engaging and rigorous classroom. Student-centered classrooms, coupled with project-based learning and knowledge of my content creates, give me opportunities to use the tools that city provides and make them my own while helping the students make their learning their own. Using traditional ideals mixed with technology and contemporary techniques, educating the whole student remains meaningful for me. Learning how to read and write is just as important as learning how to work with other people, get organized and deal with frustration without quitting. I help my students do that.
I’m an education samurai in disguise: tattooed and always smiling (even on the first day) determined to help students discover what already lurks within, teaching them how to hone their own special skills in whatever way works for them.
Starr Sackstein is an English and newspaper adviser at World Journalism Preparatory School in Queens. She is also the New York State director of the national Journalism Education Association.
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