How I Teach

This NYC teacher was skeptical of training programs like Teach for America — so she completed a teaching residency instead

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Adriana Garcia spent her teaching residency at Great Oaks Charter School on the Lower East Side.

When Adriana Garcia decided to become a teacher, she liked the idea of learning the craft by doing it.

So when she heard about a new teacher residency program at New York University based on the medical model where doctors-in-training begin practicing medicine under supervision of an experienced mentor, she jumped at the chance. Part of a growing push for teacher-residency programs across the country, the program allows student-teachers to spend a year in the classroom under close supervision while earning a master’s degree.

Unlike conventional preparation programs that are sometimes knocked for being heavy on theory but light on practical skills — or alternative programs, like Teach for America, where participants get a weeks-long crash course before being plunged into the classroom — Garcia was drawn to the idea of a residency. It would allow her gradually take on more responsibilities in the classroom under the watchful eye of a mentor, so that when she eventually stepped into a bigger role, “it wouldn’t come as a shock to anyone — either for me or for the kids,” she said.

Now, after a yearlong residency at Great Oaks Charter School on the Lower East Side and intensive online coursework, Garcia teaches economics and U.S. history at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, an alternative district school for students who struggled in traditional schools.

In this installment of “How I Teach,” Garcia shares her thoughts on the residency program, her attraction to an alternative high school, and how she juggles teaching in three different languages.

What attracted you to the teacher residency program at NYU as opposed to a more traditional teacher prep program or an alternative route into the classroom like Teach for America?

The gradual nature of the program was very important: I wanted to enter the classroom in the most responsible way I could since any mistakes I made would impact the education of young people in a high-need area. Alternative routes generally do not offer you that, and student teaching through a traditional teacher prep program tend to be semesterly and do not allow for the continuity with students that a yearlong residency does.

What drew you to your current school and do you feel that the residency prepared you for the job?

I was initially attracted to the school because a majority of its students are English Language Learners. The languages I speak and the cultures I am familiar with allow me to work well with students from Spanish-speaking countries and China, and my school has large populations of both. [Garcia studied Japanese and Chinese in college, speaks fluent Spanish, and once taught in a Japanese fishing village.]

When I walked into the school, I noted the trilingual posters in the hallways and many different languages floating through the hallways; conversations with teachers and leadership confirmed that this was a place where all were welcomed and supported.

What I really appreciate about my residency now is that although at times readings and materials seemed overwhelming, I actually have a lot of tools to reference when I’m working through challenges in my classroom.

My classes were never, “This is what your assessments should look like,” but rather, “Here are general guidelines for what makes assessments authentic for you and for students, here are some examples, now create your own for your students, and share them with the class for feedback.” When working with students who have very low literacy in their home language, or have anxiety about speaking in front of others, I go back to my notes about assessments and find ways to give every student opportunities to show me what they know and how they have grown.

What are the biggest challenges you’re working through during your first year of full-time teaching?

I was initially concerned about building relationships with students and managing my classroom since I’m pretty young and am frequently mistaken for a student, but I have found it to be one of the most fun parts of my role. Something I found challenging in a middle school was classroom management, and I wondered how it would work in a situation where my kids are only a few years younger than me.

The nature of transfer schools is that students are dealing with a host of situations that are often out of their control and impact their ability to be physically and mentally present. My goals are to have my students feel safe and loved, learn the content, pass my class, and graduate feeling ready for their next steps.

So my guidelines that were more suitable for middle schoolers had to relax: I let my students eat in class because I firmly believe that I would rather have them eating and learning inside my classroom than going outside to buy food and missing out on our lesson. I don’t take away a student’s cell phone in class because I trust them to manage their possessions and show respect for me and their peers; a simple reminder of what we should be working on or asking everyone to give the speaker 100 percent attention is generally enough to refocus.

You’re teaching classes in English, Spanish, and Chinese. What are your routines for preparing for those classes?

I plan in English first and then I translate. I have to look up and learn key vocabulary so that I can explain concepts and events in both languages. My classes are technically bilingual so I strive to balance the amount of English and home language that we use.

Sometimes the materials I want to use simply do not exist so I create my own. Primary sources I either translate myself, modify and add vocabulary support, or if it’s an especially famous document like the Constitution or Wilson’s 14 Points, I may be able to find a translated version online.

And then, during class, I have to be ready to laugh at myself when I do make mistakes. It’s actually been a wonderful opportunity to model for students how to correct yourself and not let a mistake ruin your flow.

You completed your residency at a charter school and now teach in a district school. Are there any big differences in the kind of teaching you’re expected to do?

Not really. I’m teaching different content and different students so my end goals are a bit different, but the standard for professionalism and good teaching is the same.

Last year, I was thinking more about exposing my students to history they may not have the opportunity to study again until college — like Stonewall [the 1969 riots at a Manhattan gay bar that helped launch the L.G.B.T.-rights movement]. But, right now, I’m focused on helping my students, almost all immigrants, see themselves in the history of this country that they now call home.

What’s the best teaching advice you’ve received?

During class last year my “content mentor” from NYU (Diana Turk) said something along the lines of: “Your students need to like you, otherwise they’re not going to want to learn from you.”

I’ve found it to be so true: Building relationships are the cornerstone of my teaching. My students trust and respect me, and they know that what we learn in class is for their benefit and their future success.

I’ve learned to be intentional about greeting every student when they come in, assuming the best, giving second chances, and being transparent about what I do and why. And when it’s a particularly difficult day and students want to give up on a challenging document, or when I go into work not feeling my best, that’s when the relationships we have built become extra important, and we are able to persevere.

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.