New York City public school educators have clear ideas about what they and their students need to face the challenges of this moment — smaller class sizes, more counselors and social workers, expanded mentoring, more focus on play-based learning in early childhood and more.
Eight teachers who were selected from hundreds of applicants spoke directly to Schools Chancellor David C. Banks, state Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young and other education and political leaders at the UFT’s “Listen Up: The reality is…” educator panel on April 14. The event at UFT headquarters in Manhattan was also livestreamed on Facebook.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew said policymakers frequently ask him how students are doing more than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. But, he said, it’s the educators who have worked tirelessly to ensure that learning and development continue who are the most qualified to answer.
“It’s time for people to listen to the people who are doing the work,” Mulgrew said as he introduced the panelists and moderator Rita Joseph, the City Council Education Committee chair and a former teacher at PS 6 in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Shavon Frazier, an early childhood educator at PS 184 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, said her daily dilemma is how to give all her students, who have varying needs, the time and attention they deserve. “In the classroom, we want to promote equity so that we can give each child exactly what they need,” she said. “However, we are often faced with a dilemma. How do I divide myself among all 25 children?”
Frazier and panelist Jenna Lepesis, a 4th-grade teacher at PS 11 in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, said their classes are smaller this year than before the pandemic, and students have made more progress as a consequence.
“The effect has been transformative,” said Lempesis.
Special education teacher Jason Petsch, from MS 228 in the Fordham section of the Bronx, said inadequate staffing is one of the school system’s biggest issues. “It was bad before the pandemic, and the pandemic has exacerbated trends that are, quite frankly, on the ground, alarming,” he said.
Petsch and others said new educators need longer-term mentoring.
“What kind of foundation are we giving them and what kind of scaffolds?” said Frazier of new teachers. “We are constantly being told, ‘differentiate, differentiate, differentiate; meet your students where they are. But are we meeting the teachers where they are?”
Casmira Wildeman, a 1st-grade teacher at PS 567 in the Bronx, also said schools need more counselors and other staff who offer mental health support to students. “We have to meet them where they are because so many students right now are in survival mode, and they are in no place to be able to learn,” she said.
A shortage of special education staffing and services was another concern. Cherly St. Louis, a third-year District 75 teacher, said letters authorizing families to find needed services in the community at the city’s expense aren’t helping. One parent, she said, called a community provider for services in September 2021 and finally received a callback eight months later.
Chanel Quintero, a special education teacher at PS 35 in the Bronx, called on the DOE to pay paraprofessionals a livable wage and give them the same kind of ongoing, job-specific professional development that teachers regularly have access to. The pandemic and the lack of structure in remote learning affected students with disabilities so much that some cannot even sit in a seat or pick up a pencil and write more than a few words, she said.
“Our paraprofessionals were with our children in crisis before the pandemic, but I can’t even begin to describe to you what a typical day looks like for paraprofessionals now,” she said.
Panelists said teachers should have more autonomy regarding curriculum and how they spend their non-classroom hours, more input into education decisions at the school level and more opportunities to become experts and leaders in their buildings.
Teachers know what’s best for the children in early childhood education, said Genevieve Quinones of the Pre-K Center at X582 in Highbridge, the Bronx, and “getting ready to take a 3rd-grade ELA test or math test” is not it.
Young, the state Board of Regents chancellor, said he appreciated the comments about putting teachers at the center of policy discussions. “We are learning how to do that better,” he said.
Several educators spoke to the need to identify successful teacher-led programs and initiatives throughout city schools and scale them up.
“Imagine how much growth we could make as a city if we listen to our teachers,” Frazier said.