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A year of blessings and challenges

New York Teacher
Richard Mantell

Richard Mantell
Voted in by Executive Board

This school year has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride with drops, twists and turns, whether it be related to the coronavirus, politics or the school system. The city Department of Education and the mayor all too often don’t seem to understand the work we do or the kind of support we need to do that work.

Nevertheless, we tune out the noise and we plug away. We fulfill our responsibilities to our students, whether in person and/or remotely, and we do that well. We know how crucial it is to help our students succeed. We love working with children and want to encourage them to learn and grow, both academically and emotionally.

Two middle school members recently shared with me some of the things that are going well this year and some of the challenges.

Helene Lopez is a social studies teacher at IS 68 in Brooklyn who, before Nov. 18, taught half in-person and half remote. She has found that remote students have fewer distractions and pay more attention to their work. “They have a renewed focus on their classwork; they aren’t focusing on one another,” she said. “And as you know, with middle school students that can very often lead to behavioral challenges.”

Also, as a result of having such a small number of in-person learners, Lopez says she has created stronger bonds with those students. “I always had a good rapport with my students when I had 30 sitting in front of me, but with 10 it is that much better,” she said.

Lopez works to make those connections with her remote students, too. “Getting to know your students just a little bit makes all the difference in the world,” she told me. “Getting to know them well is a game changer.”

Social studies teacher Matt Breslauer of IS 72 on Staten Island also taught both in-person and remote students. He could not praise his 8th-graders enough for their adaptability and positive attitudes. He called them “rock stars” and said they are doing great work. Breslauer said his in-person students are engaged and seem genuinely happy to be there. But with such a small number of them in the classroom, he said, the energy level simply is not the same as with a full class. The discussions and conversations are taking place but not with the same vim and vigor.

Many of the middle school members I speak with bemoan the slow flow of information from City Hall and the DOE and the uncertainty that comes with that. They find it unsettling that decisions about opening and closing school buildings citywide are often made at the last minute. They also criticize the DOE for sending mixed messages and little guidance.

While these things don’t prevent them from doing their jobs, it does make a difficult job in difficult times that much harder. Yet, as all New York City public educators do, middle school members soldier on and perform the work that needs to get done.

In the novel “The Plague,” by French author Albert Camus, one powerful line is particularly relevant to our current situation. “What is true of all evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves,” Camus wrote. With all that is going on around us, I believe we have proven Camus’ statement to be true time and again, through the work we have done and will continue to do.