First Person

Voices: I left teaching, and I am not ashamed

In the first of a series on recruiting, training and supporting teachers, Donnell-Kay fellow Sarah Jenkins describes her own choice to leave the teaching profession.

bigstock-Casual-Student-Or-Teacher-In-A-2033065_edited-1Among the ranks of Colorado transplants, conversation inevitably includes “Where are you from? What brought you to Colorado?” Along with the opportunity to brag on my alma mater, I get to share the experience that helped shape my identity and goals. “I am from Michigan; I moved to Colorado to join Teach for America; and I left the classroom after three years.”

Most people smile, nod, and change the topic. A few enthusiastic ones share their own passion for education.

Then there are those who are disgusted, naming me one of “those people,” selfish enough to leave the classroom before 35 years have passed. Unfortunately, they say, I left the classroom 32 years before completing my job.

Unfortunately, I say, the current education system does not adequately support teachers to reach and sustain excellence. In other words, within the existing system, I could not “complete the job” I had envisioned. Despite my pride in my students’ results and my development, I was unable to close the achievement gap in my classroom, regardless of weekends worked, feedback implemented, and interventions administered. I was no longer willing to be part of a system that demanded my best but failed to support me to strategically work towards extraordinary student achievement.

During my three years of teaching in two schools in the Denver Public Schools system, my eyes were opened to another factor that contributed to me leaving the classroom. I could not, and still cannot, believe the differences between schools within a single district. One school strove for order and excellence; the other was steeped in chaos and apathy.

My own efforts in the classroom could never change the fact that children all over the district, state, and country could spend all day in school, not learning. I needed to step out of the classroom, into a role where I could work relentlessly towards equalizing the system, giving students the opportunities that all children deserve. I left the classroom, but there is no way that I could leave education. I remain committed to the kids in the system and stand firm in my decision to work to improve their outcomes in other ways.

Now, after only a few months in the education policy world, I see that realizing an equal education system is a daunting task. In the classroom, my actions could directly lead to 33 students learning at a pace that would make up for previous gaps. Outside the classroom, it takes a certain amount of tenacity and political acumen to strive towards system-level solutions that may not show immediate victories. The reforms around standards, educator evaluations, testing, and turnarounds are crucial for eventual system improvement. As a former teacher, however, I want to see action that not only measures but improves the quality of teachers.

As a fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation, I plan to write an ongoing blog because I want to widen the conversation around how we recruit, train, and support teachers. I want to see teacher involvement in the policy world expand, allowing educators to contribute to progressive, meaningful solutions that will dramatically improve outcomes for kids. In the coming months, I plan to raise questions, explore research, propose solutions, and encourage conversations that will promote educational equity by focusing on those who are closest to our students every single day: our teachers.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.