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8 NYC Teachers on Going Back to School This Fall

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

This month, millions of families across the country are facing a weird, stressful start to the school year: While some kids head back to the classroom for the first time in many months, others will stick to virtual learning. In the midst of both scenarios are the teachers, tasked with figuring out new ways to do their jobs safely. Jasmine Clarke caught up with 8 New York City teachers to hear how they’re approaching the most unique “back to school” season of their lifetimes. 

Adi Dzen

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

Subject: Humanities
Teaches: 6th grade
School: Central Park East II, Manhattan

How have the events of this year changed the way you’ve thought about your curriculum?

I already wanted to start integrated teaching, which is kind of proposing that students share what they’re interested in learning and then allowing them to do a research project. Especially now, you want to make sure that they feel connected to what they’re learning. I teach in East Harlem, and the Hispanic and Black community are much more affected by what’s going on with COVID, with protests, and on and on. I want them to feel like they’re learning what they want to learn.

In our present uncertainty, would you rather be teaching in person or remotely?

I wish I could teach in person—but I’m also sensitive to the fact that I don’t live with someone who is immunocompromised, and I’m not immunocompromised. I don’t want a scenario where people feel unsafe at all. Anyone—families, teachers, school staff.

Will you be teaching in person or is your school teaching remotely?

About 50% of our school chose to stay home completely. Only 18 kids out of the whole sixth grade, which is the grade I teach, are coming in at all. They’re coming in for two days a week, and they have an optional third day.

That feels kind of safe to me. I’ll be with my nine-kid pod for those two days, and the majority of the instruction would be virtual, and my job would be to support them emotionally and in their work throughout the day.

What’s the most significant challenge teaching remotely?

Engagement. In the beginning, it was the technology—the barriers that technology poses for young people and for their families. Now it’s about engagement—like, “Oh, if I can’t understand how I’m supposed to do X, Y, or Z, I’m obviously not going to engage in the next activity because I don’t know how.” 

Then additionally, families who are in [difficult] scenarios: They can’t support their child to get them to the computer; they’re sharing a device; mom’s at work and they’re home by themselves; or whatever it is. Also feeling like this is temporary—and school’s not real right now. All of those things led to the fact that 30% of my kids were participating between March and the end of the year, which is not a lot. That’s despite me calling everyone at home, every day.

Calling the kids’ homes?

Calling, emailing constantly, or just trying to help them get their internet set up. Troubleshooting.

Have you discovered any upsides or silver linings while teaching remotely?

I definitely learned a lot about how I can incorporate technology. This year, we couldn’t use the program that we usually use, so I was like, “Okay, we’re all going to use Minecraft.” I don’t play Minecraft, but I was like, “You guys all play Minecraft—you know exactly what you’re doing. I’m just going to channel that and ask you to please make your coolest, most sustainable neighborhood you can make in Minecraft—take a video of it and tell me what it is.” That was their final project.

What was the highlight of the Minecraft project?

I just loved watching their final speeches and their videos. It was such a proud moment for me. It was like, I can’t believe that we were put into this digital world and you guys still brought it. You guys still made something really cool. You pushed yourselves and you were able to speak eloquently about it, and you’re in sixth grade. So, bravo.

Junelle Demarest

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

Subject: English/Language arts
Grade: 7th and 8th grade
School: Central Park East II, Manhattan

How have the events of this year changed the way you’ve thought about your curriculum?

I started to see the importance of incorporating technology into my classroom—not just because of online learning, but because I think it’s important that my students [learn] these skills for the future.

In our present uncertainty, would you rather be teaching in person or remotely?
I would rather be teaching remotely. I know there are some students who need school to have a safe environment, and I feel for those students, but with everything going on, I feel safer staying remote until we figure out the safety procedures. In New York City, we have 1.1 million students. It’s very hard for us to find that space to socially distance.

Have you discovered any upsides or silver linings while teaching remotely?

The students who have a hard time focusing in the classroom have been excelling online, without the distractions of the classroom. They’re home, in their own space, in their own learning environment. I’ve seen some of my students who struggled to pay attention in the classroom becoming leaders, submitting their homework on time, emailing me questions, taking accountability I haven’t seen in the classroom.

Have you learned any tricks that have made some part of teaching this year easier that you’d want to share with other teachers?

Students love gifs, they love emojis, they know what TikTok is. Incorporate them into your lessons and into your online programming. Be as creative as possible.

What’s one thing you wish people knew about what it’s like to be a teacher right now?

So much. I think a lot of people feel that some of us are lazy—that we don’t want to go to work. That we want to hide behind our union. 

I don’t think that’s the truth. There are many of us who want to get back into the buildings because we know we’re just as important to our students as their mother and father—some of us are actually more of a role model to our students than their own parents. We do want to get back. We are in a stressful position, and we are hurting just as much as the parents.

Felicia Kang

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

Subject: History
Grade: 6th-12th
School: Saint Ann’s School, Brooklyn

In our present uncertainty, would you rather be teaching in person or remotely?

I feel like this answer shifts constantly. Even a month ago, the idea of teaching in person seemed reckless. I’ve committed to at least the first few weeks going in one day a week, just to see. With that said, I fully support teachers who want to teach remotely. 

What was the most significant challenge you faced while teaching remotely?

I’m at a private school, so the vast majority of kids were fine in terms of accessibility. It was different for my sixth-graders versus my 11th and 12th graders. For the sixth graders, I found the challenge was that it was too tempting on Zoom to do things like change the background or change their name, or put silly things in the chat and that sort of thing. But that’s the same challenge I have in the classroom. 

Now I have a whole different approach. For sixth grade, I’ll be more prepared. You can’t rename yourself. You can’t have like silly, Harry Potter-type backgrounds. In the beginning, Zoom was still kind of new to me. Now I know things. I know how to use the chat. How to disable certain features to make it less distracting.

Last spring, I felt like I was a first-year teacher again. Among my colleagues, the first week or two, nobody was sleeping before 2:00 AM. It’s hard work.

What’s one thing you wish other people knew about what it’s like to be a teacher right now?

It’s so much time. Last spring, I felt like I was a first-year teacher again. Among my colleagues, the first week or two, nobody was sleeping before 2:00 AM. It’s hard work.

I do take a little solace when I’m able to step out and think—there’s something communal [about this] that’s weirdly comforting, right? I take comfort in the fact that this is something we’re all dealing with. And I remind myself that I’m very privileged—it has affected me and my community less profoundly than other communities. I’m trying to appreciate that as well, and be mindful of how it affects other people.

Ana Juliana Borja Armas

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

Subject: History
Grade: 6th
School: Girls Prep Middle School, The Bronx

In our present uncertainty, would you rather be teaching in person or remotely?

Teaching remotely comes with a lot of obstacles. Last year, for example, there were kids we never got ahold of—and that’s a lot of months for a kid to just not have school, or even [for us] to know whether they’re okay. 

Teaching remotely is horrible, but at the same time, I don’t want to be a sacrificial lamb because we don’t have better systems to support our kids. 

So you will be teaching remotely this semester?

Only until October.

And then they’re planning on…

Starting blended learning.

What does blended learning look like?

Half the kids are remote, and half are in person, but it’s really depending on what the parent wants. So if the family wants to be 100% in person, then that kid comes every day. If the parent wants to be 100% involved, then that’s what they get, but the parent has to decide, one or the other. They can’t have both—it’s either 100% remote, or 100% in person. 

What’s the most significant challenge you face while teaching remotely?

The real obstacle in teaching remotely is the fact that there are a lot of kids who are unaccounted for. My school is 200 kids, and if there’s a good 20 kids unaccounted for, that’s a lot. So now imagine that in every school. Some schools are like 4,000 kids. There’s just so many kids lost in space.

Some kids really thrive in this environment. When they’re in their own space, in the comfort of their home, they thrive.

Have you discovered any upsides or silver linings while teaching remotely?

I think that a lot of kids have developed a sense of independence. Some of them really thrive in this environment. Some of them are better independent learners than they are in a classroom setting because oftentimes our classroom sizes are way too big—so those kids are the ones getting bullied. When they’re in their own space, in the comfort of their home, they thrive. So some kids have made a 360.

And what’s one thing you wish other people knew about what it’s like to be a teacher right now?

I never thought teaching could become something where they’d expect you to do more, because I think that the amount they expect public school teachers to do in New York City is excessive. And now I feel like it’s even more. Now you’re IT tech support. You’re doing Zoom hotline customer service….

Professional YouTuber…

Professional YouTuber. You’re [running] a professional parent tutorial. You might think that people are home and teachers are chilling, but they expect us to do so much more work than they’ve ever expected us to do before.

Alejandro Desince

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

Role: Office assistant
School: Saint Ann’s School, Brooklyn

Have the events of this year changed the way you’ve thought about your curriculum and how you interact with students in general?

Yes and no. As a queer person of color, I’ve long thought about the ways in which our education has not prepared us to sort of hold the breadth and depth of our social issues. I think this year, more than ever, has revealed the necessity of us being able to hold the complexity of those dialogues. That really starts at school, where students and our youth are building those habits to start thinking critically about the world around them, and their place in it.

What’s one thing you wish other people knew about what it’s like to work in education right now?

I wish people realized how much of a labor of love teaching is.

What is Saint Ann’s testing policy with the reopening?

Every day, any student or faculty member who may come in the building that day needs to complete a virtual screening online about how they’re feeling. And then, when they arrive to the building, they’ll have a secondary screening, with a quick temperature check by our nurse here.

Is there an option to stay home or have most students decided to come in?

Saint Ann’s is really great about giving students that choice. Students were given the option to be fully remote for the entire semester. Anyone who’s chosen to be fully remote also had the option to change their mind and come in, if they wanted to have some of that community time as well.

Is there anything else you want to add?

I think there’s an immense privilege, being here at an independent school where there’s so much more diversity in terms of the age, the experience, the skill sets of the teachers. We have a culture that fosters and values interpersonal exchange and learning from each other and supporting each other and stepping in, if you can offer help. 

There’s a team of teachers who are volunteering beyond their paid positions and who also help other faculty navigate the technological needs of the semester. To me, that just signals something really important. 

Colin Flanagan

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

Subject: Introductory Biology Labs
School: Barnard College, Manhattan

Have the events of this year changed what you’ve thought about your curriculum?

Yeah, definitely. I work on a team—it’s not just me, because there’s about 200 students in the course—and we’ve all made strides in incorporating current events and adjusting our curriculum based on what wasn’t included in the past, which I think is great.

Would you rather be teaching in person or remotely?

I definitely would rather be in person, but realistically I think online is best for everyone. Not just because of safety concerns, but also equity issues. Barnard tried to implement all these policies—or is still implementing these policies—where it’s almost bullying students to have to enroll in school during this time. [They’re] not honoring any transfer credits if you go somewhere next year because you don’t want to pay $60,000 for online classes, [and] if you decide to take this year off, you can’t come back until spring 2022. This is just proof that the main concern of all these—especially these elite, predominantly white institutions—is really just money.

Are you going to be teaching in person this semester?

We’re going to be doing all virtual, which is going to be interesting, I think. It was inevitable—everything was going to be online. There’s no way to be able to control this virus in a college setting, and everyone knew that. 

A lot of the students who are having a lot of issues [now] are first-gen, low-income students. If now they’re not going to be on campus, where are they supposed to do their work? They might not have the same internet quality at home, or they might not have a working computer. There are all these issues that could have been focused on and addressed instead of making all these plans that inevitably just didn’t work which everyone saw coming. So it’s messy.

It sounds messy.

It’s definitely messy.

Have you learned any tricks that have made some part of teaching the year easier that you’d want to share with other teachers?

No. I wish I did. There are a lot of things that aren’t worked out yet. Students are saying what they need, but because of the institutionalized racism and systemic… can I say “bullshit”?

Yeah.

Bullshit. They’re not getting what they need because they’re just being completely ignored—because if they were listened to, it would endanger those who have the most power in these institutions. And no one wants that—meaning that people in power don’t want that because they’re greedy.

Most of these institutions—or all of these institutions—were set up to benefit elite white people, and they are still there for that reason. 

What do you see as a path to like some systemic change?

One would be to get rid of legacy admission. Making sure that SATs and ACTs aren’t as critical a component of the admissions process. A lot of students just don’t know how to even fill out the FASFA. Those are a few small changes

Most of these institutions—or all of these institutions—were set up to benefit elite white people, and they are still there for that reason. 

Camila Kann

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

Subject: Theater
Students: Adults with disabilities
School: ADAPT Community Network, Brooklyn

How have the events of this year changed the way you thought about your curriculum?

I teach a documentary theater class [and] playwriting. We had to switch some curriculums, but [others] work well on online platforms like Zoom because there’s screen sharing and stuff—sometimes they work even better than in-person. In terms of accessibility for people with disabilities, some people were able to attend online classes who hadn’t before, so it actually increased the amount of students who would come to class sometimes.

Would you rather be teaching in-person, or remotely?

Right now, definitely remotely. Like I said, because of the accessibility, we’re able to reach students that we sometimes weren’t able to before—and also, people with disabilities are at higher risk. I think that right now, remote is working.

Right now we’re reopening at low capacity. Keeping it remote for the moment, before there’s any resurgence, feels safer.

So you guys are reopening for this semester?

Yes. We actually have slowly started to reopen. We might have had hundreds of people in the building [pre-pandemic], but now we have 20 at a time—so it’s very, very limited.

And will your classes be online, or in-person?

Right now, they’re still online, and we’re slowly figuring out if we will go in-person.

And have you discovered any upsides or silver linings while teaching remotely?

Yes, definitely. For example, when we did in-person rehearsals, we would always have rehearsals in the community, and most of the people we work with with disabilities use Access-A-Ride. That service is free if you have a disability, but you basically have to register a pickup appointment at least 24 hours before, so you can’t, last minute, make a decision. That’s not the best. And sometimes Access-A-Ride is very unreliable—so they won’t show up to pick you up, or they don’t show up to drop you off somewhere, so you can miss a doctor’s appointment. It’s the worst thing ever. A lot of people we work with call it Access-A-Stress.

One of the best things we got out of online rehearsals and classes is not dealing with Access-A-Ride because everyone’s showing up. Everyone’s at home—you just go on the computer. We’ve had a better attendance because of that.

And have you learned any tricks that have made some part of teaching this year easier that you’d want to share with other teachers?

Not a trick, necessarily, but I think most people know by now: The New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities has said that Zoom is the most accessible platform, in terms of having closed captioning and in terms of also having an ASL interpreter you can pin on Zoom to watch. Compared to Google Meets, which is also accessible. There’s Google Meets, there’s Lifesize, there’s Microsoft Teams, there’s endless services, but definitely if you’re trying to create a more accessible program, Zoom is the way to go.

Is there anything else you want to share?

For me specifically, because I teach theater, it’s been interesting because theater’s a very in-person moment, movement, physicality-needed art form, so it’s been really interesting figuring out how to change certain activities and games to online. Maybe a trick for theater practitioners is just always finding a way to adapt—to change these activities [to be] more verbal, playing around with the screen. Using the frame of Zoom, things like that. Using the features of the online platform.

Sara Lifschutz

Teachers/Professors on Going Back to School This Fall

Subject: English as a new language, social studies
Grade: 10th grade
School: Vanguard High School, Manhattan

Have the events of this year changed the way you’ve thought about your curriculum?:

Yeah, of course. In my previous school, the majority of my students were English language learners who were not used to having personal devices outside of cell phones. It was really difficult for them to figure out how to use the [devices]—if they were even able to get a school iPad. There were students who had requested iPads in April or May and were still waiting on them in June.

Would you rather be teaching in person or remotely?

I think most of us would rather be teaching in person, but we all see that there’s a danger in that right now. Of course I’d love to be back at school.

Even though a lot of our students don’t fall into one of the risk factors for COVID-19, a lot of them live with family members who do. And so for them, coming into the school building would not just be about the actual time that they spend here in the building, but also about what they could potentially be bringing home to their families.

Not to mention most of our students take the subway to get to school, so that opens up another pool. Even if we keep them in as small of a pod as possible—like 10 kids, one adult—each of those 10 kids are interacting with countless other people on their way to and from school, all of their family members, whoever their family members are interacting with, their friends outside of school. I think it’s foolish for us to try to think that we can keep them from hanging out with their friends outside of school. We’re just opening up a can of worms that I don’t think the city is prepared to deal with.

Have you been involved with the teachers’ strike, and can you speak on the list of demands?

I wasn’t directly involved in creating a list of demands, but I have gone to several protests organized by the MORE Caucus, which is not the caucus of the UFT (United Federation of Teachers) that is currently in power. The caucus currently in power is called the Unity Caucus. Michael Mulgrew is their head. He’s currently in charge of our union right now. But the Unity Caucus, I think, has been lacking in their demands. And I think that they have been willing to agree to certain terms that I find unacceptable—for example, starting October 1st, every school is going to be testing 10-20% of staff and students at random, and the testing is going to be mandatory. I just don’t think that that’s something that should be allowed in schools. I think that once you start administering compulsory testing to staff, that opens a slippery slope to potential other infringements on personal rights. I think medical history and medical conditions should remain totally separate from the work environment.

The MORE Caucus has a more radical approach. We’re currently calling for 14 days of no new cases before schools reopen. There are several other cities and several other countries that have adopted similar models, where they’re looking for two weeks of no new cases before reopening. And yet our city is looking to go ahead with reopening, in spite of a lot of red flags around safety and around security.

If there’s anything else you want to add, feel free.

In terms of the union: What we’re seeing right now is what it looks like when unions have been disempowered over the course of the last 40 to 50 years. Unions used to be a true force to be reckoned with—a real center of worker life and empowerment. Union halls used to be places where people would get married, where they would have all sorts of parties. And now, unions have sort of turned into just collective bargaining machines. I don’t think that they’re really serving their intended purpose. And I think that we’re really seeing the results [of that evolution in the] terms that the UFT is agreeing to in school reopenings.

Okay, great. Thank you.

Photography by Jasmine Clarke.

Jasmine Clarke

Jasmine Clarke

Jasmine Clarke is a photographer born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. You can find her on Instagram and see more of her photos here.

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