Tag Archives: NYC Teaching Fellows

Young Man Went East #7: Admission

As discussed in my previous post, I applied for the NYC Teaching Fellows program. Part of the application process involved responding to two essay prompts. Below are my responses, both of which, I believe, helped me get the interview.

1. Nearly all Fellows are hired to teach in ‘high-need’ schools that are located in low-income communities. Why do you want to teach specifically in a high-need school in New York City? Why do you believe you will be an effective teacher in a high-need school?

With brutal honesty–and tremendous risk–I admit that when I began my application for this fellowship program, I did not want to teach in a high-need school. Not “specifically,” anyhow. Though I was not averse to teaching in such an environment, it was not my priority to aim for it. I had spent years searching for a career path; the mere realization that I wanted to be a teacher was enough of a personal breakthrough. Although my initial intentions did not align perfectly with those of the program’s ideal candidate, I began this application anyway.

In my first drafts, I filled spaces left void of actual experience in high-need schools with distracting declarations about the woes of the uneducated poor, proclaiming it was my duty to right those wrongs. I preached about the injustices of the public school system, and of society in general. I made a desperate attempt to convince you why I could not teach anywhere but a high-need school. However, in doing so, I started to convince myself.

The more I tried explaining why I would have a greater effect on students in a low-income community, the more I realized I actually could. Middle- and upper-class students will still reap the other benefits of their already-privileged lives to ensure a successful future, even without awe-inspiring teachers. On the other hand, such a teacher in a high-need school could be the very reason for someone’s successful future. Although the words I wrote in my initial draft came not from a long-held passion but instead from a necessity to impress you, the beliefs behind them turned out to be sincere.

What ultimately led me to discard my first essay was a conversation I had with my father during this process. My father was a teacher, one of several in my family. I have spent many a family gathering listening to them talk about the difficulties of motivating their middle-class students for whom graduation, college, and careers were all but guaranteed. In a recent conversation, my father contrasted those sentiments with stories of teachers he knows that love teaching at inner-city schools. The children at those high-need schools grew up with an intimate understanding of unstable living and the innate knowledge that hard work can help escape it. This comparison had reinforced my aforementioned epiphany.

My father also reassured me that despite my lack of specific experience in high-need schools, I do have experience adapting to new communities quickly, including low-income ones. I spent a summer in college studying at a university in Mexico while living with a host family. I spent another summer driving around the country, befriending strangers, and sleeping on their couches. I relocated to Honolulu after graduation with neither a job nor a residence for the sake of learning how to start a life in a different place. After I had settled in and created a new home-away-from-home, I started all over again in New York City. My father reminded me that my ability to adapt to new environments and connect with different people would make it easy for me to find my niche in a high-need school.

Although applying to this program is what led to my desire to teach in a high-need school, instead of the other way around, I am an ideal candidate nonetheless. The challenges of connecting with students in a high-need school might be plentiful, but they are challenges I now feel ready to accept, having realized both the potential for a more rewarding experience and my ability to adapt to new environments.

2. What is the greatest challenge you expect to encounter in raising student achievement in a high need school? What do you believe would be your role, as a teacher, in addressing this challenge? Explain how your past experience informs your response to these questions. If applicable, please include relevant personal, work, or volunteer experience with high-need communities.

Attempting to raise student achievement in high-need schools will be tremendously challenging without first dispelling the idea that certain people can only amount to certain positions in life. We must raise the bar set low by society to raise the achievement of the students affected by it. If, for example, a lower-class minority was taught to believe that she can do no better than becoming a manager at a local store, why then would she care about learning anything unrelated to such a path?

My role as a teacher will be to show my students that while what they learn might not be relevant to the futures they expect, the act of learning is useful in itself. Not everything we teach them serves merely as direct career preparation. For example, learning the history of Tammany Hall can prepare an individual against modern-day schemes aimed at the uneducated and impoverished. Understanding how people in different times and different lands overcame oppression can inspire those from low-income communities to see their own lives in a new light. How are they the same? How are they different? How might they overcome a similar problem? While a teacher cannot force students to find the War of 1812 interesting, he or she can find a way to make it relatable. If I can change how they see the world, they will change how they see themselves within it.

Though my experiences with mentoring children–volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico and being a counselor at a Juvenile Arthritis camp in California–are limited to only a handful of summers, I believe my undergraduate degree will be equally useful in preparing me for the teaching world. The Film Studies program at UC Berkeley is closer in curriculum structure to an English program than it is to a traditional, hands-on, filmmaking school. I did not passively watch films, I read them closely to comprehend history, society, artistic theories, and even philosophy. Films were, in short, an educational tool. As such, I would be able to utilize them as a way to introduce subject material to a classroom in an innovating and relatable manner. For example, I recently rewatched broadcast footage of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Although I knew that a great number of people were present at the speech, the sheer volume of the crowd was not apparent until I saw the footage. Visual representation of the crowd conveyed the momentousness of the event more concretely than reported numbers ever did. Film is a part of our everyday life and, thus, is a feasible way to lure students into unfamiliar subject materials with relevant film clips, sparking discussion based off what they saw.

Some might say you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. My father, a lifelong educator, expanded on this, saying that it is a teacher’s duty to create a thirst in his students. By finding innovative ways to present subject material to my students, I could create a thirst in pathways they never even considered, hopefully creating a wider realm of possibility for their futures.

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Young Man Went East #6: The East Coast Building

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.

My little Snow Bunny on the "sled" we found. Who knew fast food trays were perfectly adequate snow toys?

My little Snow Bunny on the “sled” we found. Who knew fast food trays were perfectly adequate snow toys?

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