First Person

Long lines, few supplies, fearing the boss: One teacher says his Bronx school was ‘just like Poland, 40 years ago’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Tomasz "Tomek" Krzyzostaniak sharing his story

At first blush, the New York City school system and Communist Poland would seem to have little in common. But Tomasz “Tomek” Krzyzostaniak, a Bronx teacher whose family emigrated from Poland in 1991, says his dad saw many similarities between the two— from long lines to a shortage of supplies.

Tomek drew the comparison during Teachable Moments, a live storytelling event for New York City teachers. Held in June at a bar called Harlem Nights, the event marked the end of the school year and invited teachers to share stories based on the theme “Best (Blank) Ever.”

Here’s Tomek’s story on the Best Bulletin Board Ever.

This story has been condensed and lightly edited.

When I was thinking about the topic for today, I was thinking a lot about the early years [at my previous school], the beginning, when things were really tough. Everything was new. It was difficult. And I would call my parents and share stories, and my dad would consistently say the same thing. (If you didn’t know, I am Polish. I was born in Poland.)

In his thick Polish accent, my dad would say, “Just like Poland, 40 years ago.”

Now to put that in context, Poland 40 years ago was in their final dictatorial communist regime that was corrupt beyond imagination. So I would talk about, for example, the long lines waiting to pick up the ELA [English Language Arts] test. How many of you here have done that? Wait for 40 minutes. You have to sign a stupid form and all you get is a stupid test back. And I would say, “Just waiting in line.” And he would say, “Poland, 40 years ago.”

I would talk about the shortage of supplies, or copiers. “Poland, 40 years ago.” I would talk about favoritism and nepotism. “Poland, 40 years ago.” Same thing.

I would talk about the symbolic walkthroughs — the superintendent is coming! All of a sudden, schools have to have everything in order, just for show. “Poland, 40 years ago.”

But with all that said, I would talk about the close friends I have, the colleagues that support each other and love each other, helped each other out, and he would say, “Poland, 40 years ago.” When times were tough, and you were part of the resistance, you made friends and you did the best you could.

So, with that in mind, my biggest nemesis in the public school system was the dreaded bulletin board.

I hated the dreaded bulletin board, not because of philosophical ideas about bulletin boards — it could be a beautiful thing, sharing our students’ ideas and beliefs. The way the bulletin boards looked, at least in our school, was you could only put up not-actual work, because you had to put up perfect work. Everything had to be spelled exactly right, all the standards had to be there, all the descriptions. The work wasn’t authentic. It was all for show.

They would make you put up this bulletin board, they’d make you stress out over it, come around, and give you feedback: “Oh, I like the color,” or something. That’s it. It didn’t have any meaning, it wasn’t done for the kids. It was done for show. “Poland, 40 years ago.”

So, with my friends Ruben and another teacher, who we’ll call Sloman, we were over it. So, Sloman and I made a bet on who could create the best bulletin board.

Ruben volunteered to be our judge, and as Ruben would, he created rubrics, thought very closely about what it would take to make this very personal, progressive bulletin board.

[And I] worked so hard on it. Put out my students’ best work on it. My bulletin board was 3-D. It was interactive! Second grade social studies. We made longhouses from the Native American tribes here in the Northeast. They were so cool. They were so beautiful. Kids did such a great job on it.

So the day came, and Ruben came with his clipboard. He looked at my bulletin board first. He made some notes. I think he was impressed by the 3-D nature of it. Unlike anything seen at the school previously.

We went upstairs. I looked at Sloman’s bulletin board. And I didn’t win.

Sloman didn’t have a three-dimensional board, but Ruben’s feedback — which was more feedback than we had received from any administrator ever — talked about transformative skills, authentic work, the level of rigor, a lot of really smart stuff that we missed in my bulletin board.

The Best Bulletin Board Ever, the title, went to Sloman. But after that feedback, after that authentic feedback, I’d like to think that my bulletin boards after that were the best ever.

Tomek Krzyzostaniak is the lower school academic director at Girls Prep Bronx Elementary. Originally from Poland, he has worked as an educator in New York City for 10 years. He started as a second-grade teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk