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Arduous journey to the front of the classroom

Middle school teacher says he’s doing what he was meant to do

Miller Photography As a social studies teacher for grades 6-8 at IS 218 in Washington Heights, Jeffrey Negron is living out a childhood wish.

His childhood was split between Puerto Rico and Brooklyn. At times he felt lost, hungry, angry. He harbored a wish to be a teacher but felt it wasn’t in the cards. Now, years later, Jeffrey Negron has landed on his feet and found his true home: a bilingual special education classroom in Manhattan.

“I absolutely feel at home in front of the kids and with discussing the needs of children with their families,” said Negron, a social studies teacher for grades 6-8 in his second year at IS 218 in Washington Heights. In his classes, he often works with students whose childhoods are fraught with hardships similar to his own.

“I’ve seen myself in so many kids, it’s almost scary,” he said. “I had one student with such anger issues it hurt to watch. All that pain. I could just tell by looking at her that she was hurting and unable to express what her deal was, and it was affecting her at home and at school.”

Because he was co-teaching at the time, Negron was able to take the child out of the classroom to speak with her. Finally she trusted him.

“She would share with me. I was able to find out in part what was angering her and we connected,” he said. “I wouldn’t give up on her. None of my teachers had quit on me.”

Negron lived in Sunset Park — where he went to PS 169 — and Starrett City, in Brooklyn. Middle school was divided between JHS 220 and IS 364 in those neighborhoods, respectively. He spent a year in school in North Babylon on Long Island, “living with an aunt and uncle who opened their home to me.”

Then he lived with his grandparents in Bayamon, near San Juan, and “had to become fluent in Spanish to survive.” He got his GED in a government program, and “because my grandfather, who was a retired handyman and an old-school guy, wanted me to know a trade, I learned printing and catering,” Negron said. “I wanted to be a teacher but I never thought that was attainable.”

After the death of his grandfather and his grandmother’s move to the United States, he tried to continue living in Puerto Rico on his own.

“I would mow grass for food, for rent money,” he said. “I managed to take a year of college. But after I saw there was no future for me economically, I went back to live with family in Starrett City, basically with no direction.”

That’s when Negron saw an ad for an aviation mechanic. He called, applied and was accepted. He was told to report to his local Navy recruiter for the job. Negron felt played and was angry.

“Then a light went off in my head: Hello, this might be the direction you were looking for,” he said.

After six years in the Navy, Negron went for a career in law enforcement but not much panned out other than a security job at Dowling College on Long Island. It came with tuition benefits. Now he could afford to fulfill his dream and become a teacher.

“I believe that God has a plan for everybody,” he said.

For Negron, the depth of the work of teaching, such as connecting with troubled students, is never overwhelming. But the breadth of being a new teacher, carrying out “all the duties and responsibilities,” can keep him on his toes.

“Lesson planning, maintaining IEPs, keeping track of students’ progress, informing everyone about progress or lack thereof, meeting with support personnel — I’d be lying if I said my second year is a whole lot easier than my first year was,” he said. “Classroom management is not easy. Then there’s bringing home a lot of work, and balancing everything with my home life and my own special-needs son.”

Still, none of it truly rattles him. “It can be nerve-racking and annoying, but it’s exciting. I wanted to do this work in part because no two days are alike, and I come to work supremely confident that it’s going to be a new day with new challenges!”

What does bother Negron, however, is “the shortage of resources available to us teachers,” he said, adding that finding social studies materials that are on his students’ reading levels, instead of their grade levels, is not always possible.

For helping him learn how to put together the pieces of that puzzle and create successful differentiated lessons, Negron credited his colleagues.

“At first I was like a lost, trembling little puppy,” he said. “I’ve never been turned down by my colleagues for help. I’ve been supported and then some, including over weekends with emailing and texting about kids we share. I listen to veteran teachers for advice. I feel very blessed, very grateful, to be surrounded by the faculty at this school.”

Negron also feels grateful when kids come back to visit and say they’re proud that they already knew some of their high school lessons. And it’s always a special moment when that once-difficult girl comes by after high school “and throws a big hug on me and I say, ‘Hey, this is me, remember you thought I was trouble?’

Negron smiles at the memory. “You know,” he said, “that’s part of why I became a teacher, so I would be able to take those stories home with me.”

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