First Person

Humility Lessons: Giving All Teachers a Chance

I was 21 when I started student teaching, and like all good 21-year-olds, I thought I knew it all. This was not in the sense that I thought I already knew how to be a master teacher, but rather that I thought there were good teachers who I could model myself after and bad teachers to teach me how not to teach. The good teachers were the enthusiastic progressive teachers doing new and different things in their classrooms who genuinely liked and cared about their students; the bad were the ones lecturing to students in rows or doing work out of the textbook like nearly all of my high school teachers.

I was lucky to be quickly humbled.

My first lesson in humility were taught to me by a math teacher who welcomed me to observe his class regularly, and who I thought was a bad teacher because he didn’t seem to like his kids. After observing him a couple of times, I wrote him off and stopped going to his class.

In hindsight, these might have been two randomly bad classes, or he might actually have not been a very good teacher, but he later gave me the best advice I got while student teaching: Create a “Happy Folder” filled with thank you notes, work from challenging students who finally got it, and those letters that teachers often get from students who, years after leaving the classroom, write to share about how they finally understood a lesson. The math teacher told me this was his most valuable possession and that if his house were ever on fire, it would be the first thing he would save. I followed that advice and started my own Happy Folder, which has grown in size over the past seven years. That folder has saved me from the depths of despair more times than I can count. It is a reminder of why I do what I do, and why I will continue to do it.

The second lesson I learned came from my mentor teacher. He seemed to be everything I didn’t want to be. He was in his 32nd year of teaching, and he spent nearly all of his time in the staff room with the other 30+ year teachers complaining and whining about the students, the state of the world, and the newfangled ideas of new teachers. He told me on my first day that he would stay out of the sections I was teaching, which I took as a sign that he didn’t care and just wanted to do less work. For that semester, I tried to minimize my interaction with him as much as possible, assuming he had nothing to offer me.

On my last official day at the school, the student teachers from my program gave presentations about what we had learned over the past semester. My cohort-mate gave a presentation on whether it mattered if students liked their teachers. He ended with a quote summarizing what he had learned was the best attitude to take toward students:

It doesn’t matter to me if my students like me; I like all my students, and want the best for them, regardless.

At the time, that quote summed up everything I thought teachers should be. It should not surprise the reader to learn that I soon discovered that the quote came from my mentor teacher. After four months together, I found out I had been completely wrong about him. When I returned to the school as a substitute the following semester, I realized his staff-room banter was just the thoughtless rhetoric of guys who had been doing this longer than I had been alive, and that it had nothing to do with what went on in any of their classrooms. Sadly, I had already missed the opportunity to learn from someone who might not have been the best teacher in the world, but who was a great person. I was humbled.

I was lucky to learn very quickly in my career that I always have something to learn from the more experienced people around me. Just as I had to learn not to write off many experienced teachers, I have also had to learn not to write off new ones either. The unfortunate reality is that most new teachers, especially in challenging school environments, are not going to be particularly effective when they first start. Most have no idea how to control a classroom consistently, no idea how to plan rigorous lessons that teach students skills while engaging them in class, and no idea how to deal with the dozens of conflicts that arise daily. But in my five years in the Bronx, I’ve been humbled again and again as I’ve seen teachers who were disasters when they started emerge two years later as competent professionals who become leaders among their peers. Nearly every great teacher I know tells a similar story: she or he had a rough 2-4 years, and then either a lightbulb went off or she discovered a new way forward, and things turned around. We all started somewhere, and for most of us, it was not in a good place.

Teaching might be the most consistently challenging job in the world. Anyone who has stepped in front of a classroom knows this in ways that people who haven’t never will. I applaud the parents, community members, and administrators who want to hold us accountable for the high expectations we have for our students — our students deserve this. However, I’m sick and tired of teachers selling each other out. Novice teachers would benefit from doing more listening to what others have to offer; even the most jaded 25-year veteran is going to have a worthwhile lesson to share. Likewise, I wish that when more experienced teachers see someone struggling, rather than writing him off or talking about how “she’ll never make it” they would take the time to observe the teacher and help him or her to learn from the mistakes that all of us make in our early years. While we may widely disagree about the best methods to reach our students and help them learn, I have yet to come across anyone who isn’t in the classroom because at some point they deeply cared about helping students grow and learn. And while there are bad veteran teachers out there and new ones who will never make it, a little humility in our professional relationships could go a long way to helping more teachers grow to be able to more effectively reach more students.

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.