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.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis struggles to balance how much money schools need with what people will pay

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Without a massive influx of cash from taxpayers, Indianapolis’ largest school district could be in dire financial straits. But the fate of the referendums asking voters for more money is in limbo.

Even as the Indianapolis Public Schools board revealed plans to reduce how much money it is seeking from voters, the administration portrayed the district’s financial future as precarious. During a board discussion Thursday, officials underscored how critical it would be for the tax increase to pass. It’s unclear, however, whether the district will get the extra cash it needs to avoid making painful cuts.

Critics have suggested the request — $936 million over eight years — is too high and that the district has not offered enough detail on how the money raised would be spent. With only tepid support for the tax plan, district leaders appear poised to reduce the amount they are seeking. That move could win over new allies, but it could also undercut their efforts to gain support.

Next year, the administration is expecting spending could outpace income by more than $45 million. The plan for filling that gap hinges on raising more than $46 million from a referendum that will go before voters in May.

Without that extra money, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said, the district would have to burn through its savings or make vast cuts that could include freezing teacher pay, cutting school budgets, and reducing transportation.

The district would need to begin making cuts immediately, said board member Kelly Bentley. “It’s just going to get worse the next year, and the next year,” she added.

The district’s future will look brighter if leaders are able to win public support for more funding, although it’s no longer clear how much money they will ask for. The original plan, which was approved by the board in December, includes two referendums to raise property taxes. One would ask voters to give the district as much as $92 million more per year for eight years for operating expenses such as teacher pay. Another measure, which the district is not expected to change, would pay for $200 million in improvements to buildings.

Ferebee said the amount he originally proposed was based on what the district needs rather than what would be politically feasible. In the face of community feedback, however, the district is crafting a plan that would have a lower price tag. Next, the district will need to explain what services will be cut to keep down costs, he said.

“I anticipate people will want to know, ‘what are the tradeoffs?’ ” Ferebee said. “We owe it to the community to provide that explanation, and we will.”

Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008, when state lawmakers created the current school funding system. About 60 percent of those referendums have been successful, according to data from Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.

Stephen Hiller, who has been studying referendums with the center for nearly a decade, said that it’s likely that many districts have had to reconcile how much money they would ideally want with how much taxpayers might be willing to pay. But that conversation likely happens before a referendum is announced and approved by the board.

“I think IPS has it a little more difficult here that it’s happening in the open after they’ve approved it in a very public way,” he added.

School board president Michael O’Connor said that the district’s willingness to change the plan is a sign that local government works.

“We live in the community within which we serve, and all of us have heard pretty plainly and clearly, ‘we think that number might be too big,’ ” he said. “We are being responsive to our constituents.”

Reducing the referendum could be enough to win over many supporters. Several groups that have supported the current administration in the past have not yet taken a stand.

Tony Mason of the Indianapolis Urban League said in a statement that the district needs more money to pay high-quality teachers and meet the needs of its diverse students. But he raised concerns about the potential impact of the tax increase on residents with fixed- or low-incomes.

“IPS will still need to continue in its efforts to make the case for the substantial amount it is requesting,” Mason said. “The IUL is an avid supporter of education, particularly for urban schools that struggle with unique challenges.”

Chelsea Koehring, who taught in the district and now has two children at the Butler Lab School, shares the view that the district needs more money. But leaders have not offered enough details about how the money would be spent, she said, and changing the request raises red flags.

“People, you should’ve had this together before you asked,” she said. “Lowering it at this point — I don’t know that that’s going to instill confidence in anyone that they have any clue what they are doing.”

Correction: February 17, 2018: This story has been corrected to reflect that Indiana districts have pursued more than 160 property tax referendums since 2008. Some districts have held multiple referendums.