First Person

Pumpkin pie with a side of exhaustion: Why late fall is such a tough time to be a teacher

The author in her classroom.

Amanda Gonzales is a high school special education teacher in Commerce City, Colorado who specializes in working with students with serious emotional disabilities. 

Just before the start of a four-day weekend a few weeks ago, the principal of the high school where I teach called an emergency meeting.

I thought it might be a last-minute reminder to file crucial paperwork. But he had actually called the staff together to tell us he didn’t want any of us to work over the weekend, though he knew some of us would.

He told us that he hoped we would take the time to enjoy our families. We would need that energy, he knew, to carry ourselves through the next month, with its 12-hour parent conference days and exhausting afternoons developing final exams.

I found my eyes unexpectedly full of tears.

It’s not that I don’t love my job, or this time of year. Colorado fall, I love so many things about you: the crisp air, the golden red leaves falling from the trees, the it’s-still-warm-enough-to- wear-a-sleeveless-top-with-a-cute-cardigan weather. October means I can finally fill my home with the scents of pumpkin pie and mulled cider candles without my family thinking I’m crazy.

I also happen to despise you, dear autumn, because you usher exhaustion and frustration into my school building.

We start school the first week of August. By November, not only is the honeymoon over, but at least in my classroom, we’re already having fantasies of divorce.

We teachers return to the school year with a new pair of work shoes, fresh dry-erase markers, and most of all, renewed hope. We’re prepared with our most creative and engaging plans, and we are sure that our students will achieve growth scores that will take the eyes of the education department off our school.

By early November, there are midterms to administer and student tears to wipe when they see their grades. There are final exams to finish, 7:15 a.m. fire drills to attend, special education re-evaluations to write, homecoming parades to oversee, and dances to chaperone. There are state testing accommodations to request, reams of quarterly data to analyze, classroom observations to look good for, and district meetings to attend.

This year, teachers faced one more challenge: helping students process the result of a presidential election that left some of them worried about the future.

The copy machine, of course, remains broken through it all. And somehow we need to ensure that our students get the very best of us each and every day.

In other words, by the time pumpkin spice lattes make their appearance, so does the desire for sleep. And summer break.

Student and teacher absences rise during this stressful season, despite incentives to get students to attend for the all-important October “count” that determines how much state funding we receive. Behavior incidents skyrocket, suspensions follow, and it’s common to hear both students and teachers say they are “over it.” When substitute teachers are in short supply and we’re left filling in for colleagues during our planning periods, we get stretched even thinner.

There are no easy solutions to this exhaustion. What helps me is to step back and remember why I push through it, and to wait for that special moment when a great lesson or a word of praise reaches one of my students and instills a little hope.

Those moments add up — with or without a working copier.

First Person

My students are worried about their families being deported. Here’s what I stopped world history class to tell them

PHOTO: Creative Commons / nickestamp
johnteaching

Queens, New York is an exciting place to teach world history. The borough is known for its diversity, and more than 1 million of its residents were born in a different country. The world’s history is the story of cultures represented right in my class.

That diversity is also why I knew my high-school students would have more than a mild curiosity about President-elect Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. According to the Migration Policy Institute, as many as 232,000 residents of the borough could be undocumented. More than 15,000 of them are children.

So, last week, I finished our lesson a few minutes early and asked my students a question. “Who here is concerned that someone they love will be forced to return to a home country under President Trump?” More than half of my students raised their hands.

I have read about what Trump has said he intends to do with regard to undocumented immigrants in this country — plans that have honestly left me disturbed. But I’m also aware that, when fear is pervasive, a well-timed lesson can be a calming force for students who are feeling anxious about what may happen to them.

So I did some research. My plan is to return to the topic in a few days with a brief lecture about what could occur to undocumented persons under a Trump presidency.

Raising this topic in a world history class may seem a bit incongruent. But part of my responsibility as a teacher is to make sure students feel safe and valued in my class. So I’ve decided that sharing some basic facts that are important for understanding this topic is a good place to start.

The first set of facts will be designed to assuage some fears. I think it’s a good idea to inform students about the extent to which New York City, like many cities across the country, has committed to making their families safe from deportation. The truth is that the city government has a three-decade-long tradition of making New York a sanctuary for undocumented people.

I’ll tell them that New York’s status as a “sanctuary city” began back in 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch signed Executive Order 124. That expressly forbade most city employees from telling the federal government if they suspected someone was in the United States illegally. That was enforced by mayors Dinkins and, surprisingly, Giuliani.

That order was ultimately struck down, but Mayor Bloomberg issued his own executive orders establishing a policy where most city employees cannot ask about an immigrant’s legal status or disclose someone’s documentation status under most circumstances. And it is important for my students to know that the exceptions to those policies pertain to undocumented people who are suspected of breaking the law.

In 2014, our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, signed two bills into law which promised even less cooperation with federal authorities seeking to remove undocumented city residents. In 2015, federal officials asked the city to detain under 1,000 people who were already in jail. The city transferred fewer than 220 to federal custody — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s estimated 500,000 undocumented residents.

I’m not inclined to leave my students with a false sense of safety, though. That would be irresponsible.

The truth is, if they live in communities where there are a lot of arrests, and Trump follows through with some of his campaign promises, then there is a greater likelihood that more deportations will occur. If he triples the number of ICE field officers in the U.S. and ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which grants a path to residency for people who grew up without documentation, the chance that my students will be affected will increase.

But facts don’t always have to represent good news in order to make a young person feel more secure. Young adults just don’t work that way. That’s why I will be sharing this information as well.

I will also tell them they do not need to face their concerns in isolation. Seeking out other people and organizations who handle this issue can be incredibly empowering. The New York State Youth Leadership Council is a great place for students to start.

The truth is no one knows whether Trump’s campaign promises will become reality. I also know that one teacher in one classroom isn’t going to do much to combat the reality that undocumented young people already live with real fear. But as we combat the “Trump effect,” facts can be helpful antidotes.

John Giambalvo is a social studies teacher at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, Queens. 

First Person

My education career has focused on poor students of color. Why I’m rethinking that in the wake of Trump’s election

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
abbas-manjee

I grew up in a low-income, abusive household in Chicago. My teachers encouraged me to find my way out through college, and I reacted by taking school seriously — almost too seriously.

Once I got to college, I worked my butt off to land a job in investment banking, satisfying a need for prestige and security. I spent the next few years building complex financial models to help one mega-corporation swallow another, and made enough money to wipe out my college debt. I was also exhausted to the core and unfulfilled by my work. So I quit, opting instead to help young people from circumstances similar to mine. I applied to Teach for America, and was soon teaching math at an alternative high school in New York City.

There, I was focused on improving the achievement of black and Hispanic students, a cause Teach for America is devoted to. I’m thankful for that focus. Its teachers, and so many others, do the kind of life-saving work that helped me get to college years ago.

The results of the election, though, have me thinking about how complicated our American ecosystem really is — and whether our focus within improving education has been a bit short-sighted.

Throughout his campaign for president, Donald Trump spoke against inclusion and acceptance, the very things that make America great. He promised to erect a wall, deport immigrants, and force Muslims to register in a national database. He went out of his way to insult women. He was endorsed by David Duke and said nothing of it.

It’s also true that voters identified by exit polls as “white without a college degree” helped Donald Trump win the election and become the next president of the United States. A whopping 67 percent of them voted for Trump.

I think we can understand this in two ways. One is that it’s unrealistic to expect rural white Americans to weather the status quo as they suffer the effects of globalization. The other is institutionalized and systemic racism.

Education is one way to address both. And so, if America continues to fail to provide everyone with an equitable education — one that puts them on the pathway to economic prosperity — we all lose. People of color like me are likely to lose the most.

That doesn’t make the choices ahead of us any less complicated. Allocating resources for one group often results in unintended consequences for others. I also know that we can’t let up in our efforts to help students of color, who need us to continue to push for college and career initiatives aimed at bridging gaps created by generations of racist policies.

But we should simultaneously redouble our efforts to improve educational opportunity for rural, disenfranchised whites. When I attended Teach for America’s 25th anniversary summit in Washington D.C. last year, I attended a session called, “What is the Role of White Leaders on the Path to Educational Equity?” This certainly needs to be talked about. It’s also important to recognize that when we talk about being white in education, we tend to assume it’s a position of power. That privilege is real, but so are the limited opportunities for higher education and a sustaining career for plenty of white Americans.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Our job now is to make sure that every American child has access to the best one.

Abbas Manjee is the chief academic officer at Kiddom, a platform that helps teachers design personalized learning experiences.