In the movies and television shows I watched as a child, it was normal to see school scenes take place completely indoors in one giant building: classrooms linked by hallways, multiple stories linked by staircases, water fountains linked by double-rows of lockers. It did not occur to me until later that none of the schools I attended were like this. My suburban Californian classrooms were divided among separate buildings spread out over blacktop, concrete, and grass. I never had to go up stairs until high school, but even that was a rare occasion. Whenever I was not at a desk, I was under a clear, blue sky. I realized that the single-building model of movies and TV, even if they took place out West, were recreations of what the writers/producers/set designers brought from the East, where space is limited and weather severe.
This past week, I had a chance to see not one, but two single-building schools, one in Brooklyn and the other in Manhattan. I smiled with curiosity as I climbed echoey staircases and waltzed down locker-strewn hallways. Old wood was everywhere. It was just like in the movies! As an adult and a transplant, I can enjoy the charm of old buildings, but I cannot imagine being a young student trying to learn in those dim-lit rooms.
I know what you are thinking, and it’s not, “What other intriguing observations have you made about building designs and how they change throughout time and location?” (Although, if that is what you are wondering, I do have other observations!) No, what you must be wondering is, “What were you doing meandering around New York City schools?” The short answer is this: They’re where I see myself in the near future.
Here’s the long answer:
After moving to New York with Jenn, securing an income, and finding a place to live, I started to think about my future and what I wanted to do with it. I always saw personal fulfillment, not money, as the key to a successful career. That being the case, I have victoriously avoided desk jobs since graduation; following a passion is the other side of that coin, and the more challenging one. I studied films in college, but I did not want to get involved with that industry. I discovered a knack for writing, but I could not live a life of so little structure. Eventually, I realized that thinking about, learning about, and talking about history was the true backbone of nearly all my interests. I browsed museum job opportunities for a short while before finally admitting to myself that teaching history would be my only fulfilling path.
After a lifetime spent subconsciously avoiding the inevitable, I started down the road to becoming a teacher. I always knew I could be good at teaching, and it was the de facto family business. I guess I never trusted that the most obvious career path would be the right one. I regret nothing, though; if I hadn’t dabbled and traveled for the last half decade, I wouldn’t be as sure about teaching as I am now. I have found my passion; now begins my journey.
Desperate for teachers, New York City offers what they call the NYC Teaching Fellows. The program trains its fellows for seven weeks during the summer, then throws them in front of a low-performing classroom at a high-need school for two years. During those two years, fellows will simultaneously be taking classes at a university in order to obtain a Master’s degree and a teaching certificate. The hook is that tuition will be subsidized by the salary the fellow will receive. A livable wage, a degree and certificate, and no student loans?! Sign me up!
The application consisted of two essays, asking such questions as why I wanted to teach in a high-need school and how I plan to be an effective teacher. (I will post one or both of those essays in the following blog post.) The biggest hurdle of those essays, for me, was explaining my way around my lack of direct teaching experience. For the essay, I got creative, but I wanted some actual experience should I get the interview. I began searching for volunteer tutoring opportunities. I browsed around the usual hunting grounds: YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Club. However, I ended up volunteering with the Arab American Association of New York. Through NYC Service (seriously, New York has the best government resource sites!), I discovered that the AAANY needed volunteer teachers for their children’s after-school program called Kitaab Club. One awesome cover letter later and I was having my picture taken for my Kitaab Club Teacher badge! At least once a week, I venture out to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn and help Arab children with their homework at P.S. 170, one of the single-building schools I mentioned earlier.
But even before my first day of Kitaab Club, I received an e-mail from the Teaching Fellows inviting me to the interview event. So, while I was teaching Mohsen how to round to tenths and Tarek how to multiply fractions, I was also preparing for a writing exercise, a math assessment, a teaching sample, a group activity, and a personal interview. Like I said, it was an interview event. Since my essays were good enough to get the interview, I was not worried about how I would perform during it. The only thing I really had to prepare for was the teaching sample: a five-minute lesson about anything I wanted, aimed toward any classroom of students between first and twelfth grade. I devised a humorous lesson about pronouns in compound subjects and compound objects (“My friends and I went to the park.” “She spoke to him and me.“) that used popular yet grammatically incorrect song lyrics. Jenn had me practice with her about twenty times until I got it down to just under five minutes. I had so much fun practicing with Jenn that it became the one part I was looking forward to the most during the interview event, even though the site referred to it as the most daunting.
My interview was on the morning of February 9th, the day of the heaviest snowfall brought by Blizzard Nemo. While Nemo buried the rest of the East Coast, New York City escaped havoc-free. I walked through dirty snow piles and under sunny, blue skies to Washington Irving High School, just east of Union Square. This was the second single-building school I ever entered, and it was beautiful. Stone carvings, wall murals, and wooden railings kept me occupied while I waited in the lobby with the other candidates.
I was relatively calm throughout the day. The writing and math portions were simple, and my teaching sample went off without a hitch, just like I practiced. The other students’ teaching samples were. . . alright. Mostly, they just boosted my confidence in my own. I felt like I stumbled and mumbled through the 20-minute personal interview afterwards, but I know it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was at the time. Since I got out earlier than expected, I met up with Jenn and we ventured over to Central Park to play in the snow. The interview event already left me feeling good, but getting to sled down the snow-covered hills of Central Park with my love made the day fantastic. We ended our adventure with an impromptu prix fixe dinner at a French restaurant on the Upper East Side. (I know, I know. Job interview, sledding, prix fixe dinners: my internal age is doing cartwheels.)
Whether or not I get the fellowship, I at least now know where I am heading: I am going to be a teacher. I am going to work in these old, single-building schools. I am going to make history so interesting, these East Coast schoolchildren won’t realize they’re sitting in dim-lit classrooms.