Wearing jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers — with her hair in a ponytail — math teacher Danielle Tutelian doesn’t look much older than her students at the Bronx HS of Business.
That works to her advantage. In fact, it’s the “reason I survive,” she says. “I connect with them on a different level.”
The first week in Tutelian’s classroom isn’t about assessments, the syllabus or expectations. It’s about “team building activities so I can get to know them. I want to see what these kids are about. I try to have fun with them.”
Once that connection is made, Tutelian shows them her structures and routines, tells them what she expects and “how they should respect my rules the same way I respect them.”
Tutelian runs the school’s PERC program — Peer Enabled Restructured Classrooms — an instructional strategy she says is building student leadership and improving morale.
Classrooms are moving away from the traditional model of a teacher lecturing while students take notes. “Students are collecting the data, making the scaffolds, telling me what worksheets to make. Essentially, I’m a facilitator,” Tutelian says, and PERC is her vehicle.
For her work, Tutelian was a 2019 Big Apple Award winner, one of 17 out of 7,100 nominees.
Tutelian, who grew up nearby, has been at the Bronx HS of Business since she began teaching eight years ago. She is the school’s UFT chapter leader, a master teacher and a mentor for new teachers. She has been her students’ sounding board, and she’s bought them clothes. Many students credit her for passing the Regents and graduating.
“Some of these students don’t have mothers; they don’t have friends. They need more than a teacher; they need a role model,” Tutelian says.
For PERC, Tutelian trains students to be Teacher Assistant Scholars in her algebra classes. Each assistant leads a small group, is observed monthly and is graded. “I teach them how to be teachers and then I do some content to make them feel confident with it,” she says. By year’s end, she says, “They don’t need me. If I’m at a PD, my class still runs. You would think I’m there.”
In a school full of English language learners, the Teacher Assistant Scholars must be bilingual. Tutelian also chooses them based on personality (“I see something in them they haven’t seen yet themselves”). All either borderline passed or failed the Regents, and her goal is to get them to the college-ready score of 70.
“I give them a leadership role and they’re going to continue to come to school and put in an extra effort,” Tutelian says. “Every single Teacher Assistant Scholar surpasses college ready; they receive in the 80s.”
The program also gets results for the other students, who also previously failed the Regents. They are encouraged to retake it in January and most pass. By June, the pass rate is about 80 percent, Tutelian says.
Colleague Nader Rofagha, a 20-year teacher with a Ph.D. in math education, says Tutelian “does a great job. Students learn the topic more effectively as a result of the smaller learning groups and more interactive communication.” And because the Teacher Assistant Scholars and the students are the same age, Rofagha says, they use “their own language, their own expressions, and that itself helps them learn.”
The assistants “research best practices and choose whatever works best for their group,” Tutelian says. “Every group is doing similar questions but in a different way.”
During one quiz, a Teacher Assistant Scholar pointed to a problem. “What do you see?” he asked his students. “You’re missing something,” he hinted when they answered.
“You have to put yourself in their shoes,” said another assistant. “Not everyone is on the same level.” The 11th-grader likes the “feeling you get when you help someone” and knowing you “put in the work” that allowed them to succeed. In addition to building character, she said, “it helps build my confidence.”
During quizzes, the Teacher Assistant Scholars “have strict guidelines of how far they can go with scaffolds because I need to assess the students,” Tutelian says. “But every time a student is ready to give up, a Teacher Assistant Scholar is there to boost their confidence and they keep going.”
Most important are the peer-to-peer relationships. “The Teacher Assistant Scholars reach out to students on Facebook, they have study groups, they do FaceTime. Things teachers can’t do, students are doing,” Tutelian says. “I’ll go to the cafeteria and there’s tutoring going on, and I had no idea.”
She explains: “We’re really building a family. People feel safe to come to school. They’re excited to come to class. These kids are changing the culture of the school.”