open mic

Q&A: The high school teacher who turned her stories into a comedy show

Natasha Vaynblat, outside the Upright Citizens Bridgade Theater in Chelsea, where her one-woman comedy show about her four-year teaching career begins Friday.

Natasha Vaynblat learned a lot during her four-year career teaching English in a Manhattan and Brooklyn high school. A background in theater is as good as any teacher prep program, for one. Banging a frying pan is not the best classroom management strategy. And, after a while, the system “wears you down.”

Out of the classroom now for more than a year, Vaynblat has turned that experience into a one-woman comedy show at the Upright Citizens Brigade, which begins Friday night. The 30-minute show is titled “United Federation of Teachers,” and Vaynblat plays embellished versions of co-workers. But she’s adamant that the show isn’t a knock on teachers.

“This is a look at the crazy world of teaching,” Vaynblat said.

We sat down with Vaynblat this week to ask how and why she made her way from the front of the classroom to the microphone. (This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why did you want to go into teaching?

I did Teach for America right out of college, but I knew I wanted to pursue comedy, so I was like, ‘I’ll move to New York, Chicago, or L.A.’ And they placed me in New York and I was like, ‘Perfect! I’ll teach during the day, do comedy at night. It’s going to be so easy!’ And then of course that’s not how it works. I was there for a year before I could do anything besides teaching. But I ended up really liking it and was good at it, so after my first two years I decided to keep teaching.

Why create a show around your experience?

I found that I was amazed by the diversity of characters who work in schools, and I think teaching is really hard and will make you crazy. And if the administration is also crazy, you go a little loopy.

By the end of my first year, I was kind of at my wit’s end to control my classroom, so I started bringing in a frying pan. Like, an actual frying pan that I would bang sometimes if my students were too loud. And nobody told me to stop doing it. No one in the administration was like, ‘Hey maybe that’s not the best way to handle your students.’

After that moment, I was like, OK maybe I’m going a little crazy, too.

Give me an example of a story that makes it into the show.

We would sometimes have these staff meetings that involved us singing a song together. And the song was almost like a Weird Al Yankovic version. I remember we sang “So Happy Together” by The Turtles, but it was about co-teaching. So our professional development about co-teaching was singing this song together where the lyrics were like, Let’s co-plan, let’s backwards plan.’

I remember thinking, ‘This is a group of professionals and all we’re doing is we’re singing a song together.’ That, I think, might have inspired the show.

How do teaching and acting compare?

I think teaching, at least for me, felt very much like performing, especially when I first started out. So much of it is about showing that I was confident and could control a classroom, even though deep down I was petrified and thought I couldn’t do it. Performance is so much of that too. An audience will read if you are confident or not. Even if you’re nervous about something, you perform as if you’re not.

I had done improv in college, and I think that, more than anything else, helped me with my teaching. I was prepared for unexpected things to happen. For instance, to change a lesson because it was too confusing of a concept. It allowed me to feel much more comfortable in a classroom, which can become so chaotic and things change at a drop of the hat.

By far, my performance background saved me.

Why did you leave teaching, and what did you learn from the experience?

To continue progressing in my [acting] career, it got to the point where I had to decide, either I have to teach or I have to do this. I moved here to do this, and I can always come back to teaching.

I think the people who start in teaching are excited and want to do well. I think the system beats them down and it’s so hard to stay positive in our system because of all of these new rubrics and standards.

At my second school, I was on an incredible English team in my last year and we were doing a great job. I was surrounded by really incredible people and we were pushing our students. And then we had to rewrite everything completely to fit these new [Common Core] standards. I totally understand that they come from a great place, but it was kind of like, we could have kept improving on our own work if we had just been given the freedom to do our job well.

I think it really wears you down, and I think it’s why a lot of people leave, and it’s why a lot of the people who stay get less invested. When I first started teaching I was like, ‘I can’t believe so many people are bad teachers.’ And after my fourth year of teaching, I think I understood. I don’t think it’s entirely their fault.

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.