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.

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.

regents roundup

Regents support a new way of evaluating charter schools and soften penalties for schools with high opt-out rates

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Chancellor Betty Rosa, center, at a recent Board of Regents meeting.

New York’s top education policymakers tentatively approved new rules Monday on two hot-button issues: the penalties for districts and schools where many students opt out of state tests — and how nearly 100 charter schools across the state will be evaluated.

Here’s what you need to know about the new policies that the state’s Board of Regents set in motion.

Potential penalties for high opt-out rates were softened

After criticism from activists and parents within the opt-out movement and pushback from the state teachers union, the Regents walked back some of the consequences schools and districts can face when students refuse to take state exams.

Among the most significant changes, which state officials first floated last week, is that districts with high opt-out rates will not be required to use a portion of their federal funding to increase their testing rates.

“I do not ever want to be the person who takes money away from children,” State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said.

The regulations are part of the state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and stem from a federal mandate that 95 percent of students take the state’s annual reading and math exams.

The Regents tweaked other rules requiring schools to create improvement plans if they fall below the 95 percent threshold. Schools with average or higher test scores will not have to come up with those plans.

Still, some parents who support the opt-out movement and who attended Monday’s meeting said the changes don’t go far enough and that schools with lower test scores should also be exempt from coming up with plans to boost participation rates.

“There’s still so much left to be addressed,” said Kemala Karmen, a New York City public school parent who attended the meeting.

The new regulations will likely not have a major effect in New York City, where opt-out rates have remained relatively low. Although New York State has been the epicenter of the test-boycott movement — with roughly one in five students refusing to take the tests, according to the most recent data — less than 4 percent of the city’s students declined to take them.

The Regents unanimously approved the changes, although their vote is technically preliminary. The tweaks will still be subject to a 30-day public comment period and will likely be brought to a final vote in December.

New criteria for evaluating charter schools

The Regents also narrowly approved a new framework for evaluating the roughly 100 charter schools that the board oversees across the state, 63 of which are in New York City.

The new framework is meant to bring charter schools in line with how the state judges district-run schools. Under the new federal education law, the Regents have moved away from emphasizing test scores as the key indicator of a school’s success.

In keeping with that shift, the new charter framework will require schools to have policies covering chronic absenteeism, out-of-school suspension rates, and other measures of school culture to help decide whether they are successful enough to remain open.

And while the new framework does not spell out specific rates of chronic absenteeism a school must fall below, for example, it does explicitly add those policies to the mix of factors the Regents consider. (Officials said that test scores and graduation rates would still remain among the most important factors in evaluating charter schools.)

At Monday’s meeting, discussion of the charter framework prompted broad complaints about the charter sector from some Regents. The state’s framework for evaluating charters was last updated in 2015; the board has added several new members and a new chancellor since then.

The current board has repeatedly sent mixed messages about the sector, approving large batches of new charters while also rejecting others and raising questions about whether the schools serve a fair share of high-need students.

“We’re giving money away from our public schools to charters,” Regent Kathy Cashin said, emphasizing that she believes the state should more deeply probe when students leave charter schools and survey families to find out why.

Charters receive some freedom from rules governing most district-run schools, but in exchange the schools are expected to meet certain performance benchmarks or else face closure.

State officials said the new framework does not include new standards for how New York judges enrollment and retention. Under the current rules, schools must enroll a similar number of students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students as other nearby district schools. If they don’t, they must show that they’re making progress toward that goal.

Ultimately, the new framework was approved eight to five in a preliminary vote and will be brought back to the full board for approval on Tuesday.