open mic

Q&A: The high school teacher who turned her stories into a comedy show

Natasha Vaynblat, outside the Upright Citizens Bridgade Theater in Chelsea, where her one-woman comedy show about her four-year teaching career begins Friday.

Natasha Vaynblat learned a lot during her four-year career teaching English in a Manhattan and Brooklyn high school. A background in theater is as good as any teacher prep program, for one. Banging a frying pan is not the best classroom management strategy. And, after a while, the system “wears you down.”

Out of the classroom now for more than a year, Vaynblat has turned that experience into a one-woman comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, which begins Friday night. The 30-minute show is titled “United Federation of Teachers,” and Vaynblat plays embellished versions of co-workers. But she’s adamant that the show isn’t a knock on teachers.

“This is a look at the crazy world of teaching,” Vaynblat said.

We sat down with Vaynblat this week to ask how and why she made her way from the front of the classroom to the microphone. (This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why did you want to go into teaching?

I did Teach for America right out of college, but I knew I wanted to pursue comedy, so I was like, ‘I’ll move to New York, Chicago, or L.A.’ And they placed me in New York and I was like, ‘Perfect! I’ll teach during the day, do comedy at night. It’s going to be so easy!’ And then of course that’s not how it works. I was there for a year before I could do anything besides teaching. But I ended up really liking it and was good at it, so after my first two years I decided to keep teaching.

Why create a show around your experience?

I found that I was amazed by the diversity of characters who work in schools, and I think teaching is really hard and will make you crazy. And if the administration is also crazy, you go a little loopy.

By the end of my first year, I was kind of at my wit’s end to control my classroom, so I started bringing in a frying pan. Like, an actual frying pan that I would bang sometimes if my students were too loud. And nobody told me to stop doing it. No one in the administration was like, ‘Hey maybe that’s not the best way to handle your students.’

After that moment, I was like, OK maybe I’m going a little crazy, too.

Give me an example of a story that makes it into the show.

We would sometimes have these staff meetings that involved us singing a song together. And the song was almost like a Weird Al Yankovic version. I remember we sang “So Happy Together” by The Turtles, but it was about co-teaching. So our professional development about co-teaching was singing this song together where the lyrics were like, Let’s co-plan, let’s backwards plan.’

I remember thinking, ‘This is a group of professionals and all we’re doing is we’re singing a song together.’ That, I think, might have inspired the show.

How do teaching and acting compare?

I think teaching, at least for me, felt very much like performing, especially when I first started out. So much of it is about showing that I was confident and could control a classroom, even though deep down I was petrified and thought I couldn’t do it. Performance is so much of that too. An audience will read if you are confident or not. Even if you’re nervous about something, you perform as if you’re not.

I had done improv in college, and I think that, more than anything else, helped me with my teaching. I was prepared for unexpected things to happen. For instance, to change a lesson because it was too confusing of a concept. It allowed me to feel much more comfortable in a classroom, which can become so chaotic and things change at a drop of the hat.

By far, my performance background saved me.

Why did you leave teaching, and what did you learn from the experience?

To continue progressing in my [acting] career, it got to the point where I had to decide, either I have to teach or I have to do this. I moved here to do this, and I can always come back to teaching.

I think the people who start in teaching are excited and want to do well. I think the system beats them down and it’s so hard to stay positive in our system because of all of these new rubrics and standards.

At my second school, I was on an incredible English team in my last year and we were doing a great job. I was surrounded by really incredible people and we were pushing our students. And then we had to rewrite everything completely to fit these new [Common Core] standards. I totally understand that they come from a great place, but it was kind of like, we could have kept improving on our own work if we had just been given the freedom to do our job well.

I think it really wears you down, and I think it’s why a lot of people leave, and it’s why a lot of the people who stay get less invested. When I first started teaching I was like, ‘I can’t believe so many people are bad teachers.’ And after my fourth year of teaching, I think I understood. I don’t think it’s entirely their fault.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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