First Person

Only The Best Every Day

I finished my last graduate courses on Tuesday. As I walked to the train talking with a colleague who had begun the NYC Teaching Fellows program at the same time as me, he remarked on how different we had become since that first summer during our initial training before entering the classroom. How innocent we were then! Teaching changes you, indelibly.

I remember how on top of the world I felt at that time, even as I knew the challenges that awaited me. I had been a manager at a demanding and innovative grocery retailer and was physically fit, accustomed to breaking down pallets of heavy groceries, dealing with crazy customers, and working on one full meal a day with 4-6 hours of sleep and a 1 1/2 hour to 2-hour commute each way on what was generally a middle-of-the-night series of subway trains. Yes! I finally had adapted to NYC after a recent move from Lake Tahoe and felt I was ready to tackle anything. Phew. Folks. What hubris, what folly.

See, the thing is that teaching takes much more than simple ambition, physical drive, stamina, and dedication. It takes deep internal spiritual and emotional wellsprings to maintain composure and constancy. Every facet of your being will be challenged, every hidden assumption, every underlying prejudice, every underdeveloped part of your psyche and soul, every trigger of anger or annoyance will be released and exposed and prodded and overturned. You will be scraped hollow. You will be on the verge of mental breakdowns — or actually have them, depending on your level of mental stability. You will nearly break into tears — or actually break into tears, depending on your level of stoicism — in front of other adults or students. Oh yes. Teaching changes you.

And there will be days when you wonder, given how close to the breaking point you can come, just at what point a human mind becomes broken and can no longer be made whole again. And at the verge of this question is a rift of despair and anguish so deep that you can’t really quite go there — you have to wall off the reality of the lives of your students from your own life in order to protect your own emotional and mental well-being. Your students. Some of them living lives so unfathomable that you have to build a wall of professionalism in order to protect yourself. Or risk craziness, despair. Breaking down into tears at the mere mention of their name. Because it’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s always about them. And even during the most challenging moments of confrontation, even during the worst days of acting out behavior, you know that this is all about serving them. About becoming a better person so that you can better serve them. Becoming a better teacher so that you can negotiate the landmine pathways of the heart and mind and guide them there by proxy.

Anyone who thinks that he or she can step into the midst of this situation and create a revolution will not survive. Idealism has little place in the day-to-day marathon battle of seeking to transform the very soil that these children are rooted within, confined within. Only steady, patient, nurturing, every day, constant, consistent, repeated love–love–love. Tough love. Real love. Love that does not accept mediocrity. Love that does not accept falsehood. Love that does not accept anything except the best from your beloved. Because you know that’s what they really are. The best. No matter what they tell themselves. No matter how much they try to show you the worst in them (and they will — it’s a child’s way of testing your commitment). Every day. The best. Only the best. The best in you. The best in them. Even when neither of you have it in you. You come the next day to try again.

Until one day, there is a moment when you look around you, into their eyes, into their hearts, and you feel it. You can feel it. Again, you almost begin crying, but this time, for another reason. It’s love. It’s real. And it is changing you. And if it is changing you, it must be, it must be changing your students, too. This is what you came here to do. And that is the only thing that can keep you going. That hope. That wish. That love.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.