Peri Lyman has worked as a reading teacher for the Department of Education in nonpublic schools for 22 years. She currently serves two Catholic schools in Queens.
What does it mean to be a UFT member in a nonpublic school?
Our program is funded by Title I. If a student scores under a certain percentage in reading or math and also attends a parochial school in a neighborhood that is eligible for Title I funding, that student is eligible for the program. I’m a reading teacher, so I have a classroom in the parochial school. I see five or six different groups in a day, ranging from 1st-graders to 8th-graders. Every year we get sent to different schools.
What makes your job different from teaching in a public school?
When I first started working in this program, we used to have little blue vans outside the schools because there used to be a separation of church and state law that didn’t allow us to go into the buildings. We had these things called mobile instruction units, and the bus driver would have to go pick up the kids and bring them back into the van. The worst part was when you had to go to the bathroom! Then they reversed that law and enabled us to go back into the building. Now we have our own classrooms, but we still see ourselves as New York City employees that are visitors in the building. When I was in a public school, I had a lot more camaraderie with other employees. Here, I’m all alone. There are nonpublic school teachers with me, but those are not my colleagues. It can be isolating.
Is it difficult to be at a different school every year?
It’s very tricky for our bosses to place us because it depends on a school’s need for services. I might hope and pray that I’ll be back in the same school, but you get used to being changed around. Whenever I’ve been changed and I’ve been upset about it, something has always happened so that it worked out for the best. I was in a school for many years that I loved, and the kids loved me, but I shared a classroom with a math teacher and we had to teach at the same time. When my schedule was changed, I was very upset at first. Then I came to my new school, and I had a big shiny classroom with the kind of wood that glistens. I was like: Wait a second, Peri, maybe this will not be so bad.
Why did you decide to become a reading teacher?
I was always into two things: the Beatles and books. I always thought I would be a musician or have a talk show. After college, I saw that there was such a thing as a master’s degree in reading education. I couldn’t believe it because besides listening to music, that was the only other thing I was good at. Now when I teach reading strategies, I make up a lot of songs like, (sings to the tune of “Frere Jacques”), “Setting, characters, problem, solution — that’s a plot!” I have a song for compare and contrast that 6th- and 7th-graders still come into my room and sing to me. I see students on Union Turnpike and they start singing!
What would surprise people about your job?
How delicious and appreciative the kids are. When you put kids in a risk-free environment they feel safe in, they can really flourish. What I tell students about reading makes them feel more confident. I tell them that when I’m reading a big, giant book, sometimes I don’t understand every word, either. I think it’s very comforting for them to see that it’s OK not to know things, and that’s part of reading. I think that my love of reading is contagious, and the kids start loving it too when they see me in action.
What’s been a particularly rewarding experience?
Years ago I worked at a school that’s now closed, and I had two 2nd-graders, Angelina and Nathan. They could barely speak English or read and write. I taught them for three years. Well, recently Angelina friended me on Facebook, and she told me that she was engaged to Nathan. And guess what? Angelina is becoming an occupational therapist and Nathan is a teacher! Two months ago, I went to their wedding. It was really one of the highlights not only of my teaching life, but of my whole life. Unreal, pure joy. I am so proud of them.
— as told to Rachel Nobel