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Stay true to your profession

New York Teacher

Karen Alford
Teaching is the best job in the world. When you see your students entranced with learning, there is nothing more gratifying. Of course, I’m biased: Elementary education seems to be where joy can be found on a daily basis as we introduce new concepts to our younger learners.

Yet so many facets of early childhood education — the block center, the dress-up center, the water centers — are being pushed out to make room for what many of us feel is an overemphasis on standardized testing for even our youngest learners.

My kindergarten-age son is now learning about colors and mixing colors at schools — he’s getting to paint, and he’s so excited. He comes home to tell me, “I know what blue and yellow make!” Decades later, many of us still remember the thrill of those big moments in our own early learning.

But with a narrow focus on English language arts and math, other subjects are being given short shrift. We are losing not only the early childhood centers, but also art and music programs, social studies and science experiments, and these are also — I would say equally — what learning is about. The fun, for both students and teachers, can be lost to the overarching concern with testing subjects if we are not mindful of that danger.

I’m not against assessments, but we can’t let our efforts targeted toward a test get in the way of igniting that spark of learning in our students. The teachers I meet from across the city, whether they are new or veteran, are staying true to their mission, keeping their passion for teaching strong and bringing education to life for their students.

They do this by adapting the new demands to what they know works. Rather than pulling out a test prep book, they have children read the books they choose themselves and answer questions based on frequently asked exam questions.

Educators I admire take full advantage of the fabulous resources New York City has to offer.

For Magali Previl, a veteran 4th- and 8th-grade science teacher at PS/IS 327 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the key to staying jazzed about her work and bringing that excitement to her students is attending workshops that stretch her own knowledge. “I’m on the list for the Queens Hall of Science, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, even the New Jersey Liberty Science Center,” Previl says.

She’s gone to great workshops at Cornell University over the summer and staffed a booth at this year’s New York Maker Faire, where amateur scientists of all ages exhibited what they’ve made and shared their excitement.

“I would tell new teachers: Don’t be shy about going to workshops — you have the opportunity to talk to others,” Previl says. “Every teacher is a resource person with new ideas for how to tackle problems. Visit museums in the city and make yourself a learner. As much as you are a teacher, you have to step back and be a learner, too. Then you start asking a whole lot of questions and the ‘Wow!’ comes out, even as a teacher.”

Newer teacher Yadira Velazquez, an art teacher at PS 335 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, says that she treats the entire school building “as a walking, living and breathing museum.” Student work can be seen in the hallways, the entrance, the stairways and the main floors of her school. “Students are so gratified to see their work displayed,” she says. “It’s a constantly changing exhibit.”

Velazquez also makes good use of the city’s offerings, from neighborhood gems like the Weeksville Heritage Center Museum, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration’s Youth Arts Academy. Ranging farther afield, she brings students to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Broadway shows that are “almost free” ($2 for students) at the New York Victory Theater.

So despite the bureaucracy, the paperwork, the focus on testing, stay true to your profession. When a child who has been struggling in math finally gets a concept, when a child comes in and can read a story all by himself for the first time, when a student returns to school on Monday saying “I missed you,” that’s what puts a smile on your face. Just watching your students learn and grow creates the passion that keeps us going as educators.

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