My brilliant second career came around just in the nick of time. I was accepted by NYC Teaching Fellows when my son was five. Not a moment too soon as I was kind of a career-changer without a career. I used my sort of zigzag path to nowhere to write an application essay about the diversity of my experience. Which I actually find to be totally valid because god help you in a Bronx school if you can’t handle a little adversity.
I was certainly used to abrupt changes when I decided in an almost spur-of-the-moment fashion to send my application in to the program. I had watched the subway ads for several years—when my son was two, no way possible. Three, still no. Four, not yet, and then when he was finally five I went for it. I was babysitting at the time, with him, that’s why I was doing it. And I worked at an after-school program for the Y.
My big deal was supporting my son and paying my rent. My brilliant second career wasn’t about anything as fancy as job satisfaction or dissatisfaction, it was about getting a job with benefits and a salary to support the constant rent hikes on our studio apartment in Manhattan. Bringing things down to their elemental level can simplify everything. When I went for the five-hour interview for the program we were given an inspirational talk about career-changers taking a cut in salary and still being head-over-heels happy about their experience as a teacher. I didn’t have any such salary cuts to worry about. The starting salary for a teacher is a huge jump from hourly babysitting wages, take it from me. And I started with a salary differential since I already had a Masters degree in English, and even got credit for teaching in Japan for two years.
There’s plenty of controversy surrounding the teacher preparation part of the program and I completely acknowledge that it’s valid. After a harrowing summer of 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. days on a $2,500 stipend with my little five year old in YMCA summer camp, I didn’t feel I had the first idea what I was doing when I set foot in a classroom that first fall. But the great thing about me is that I was so grateful to have a solid job with benefits that I really didn’t care.
I’m a single mother (just in case you didn’t know). I got by babysitting with my kid for four years. I didn’t have any giant fancy career to start with and I got my Masters in TOESL almost-all paid for by AmeriCorps through the Fellows program. I just wasn’t going to whine. And I started at a great school. My first year there were a lot of new teachers at the school, and probably 95% of them were Fellows. My school liked Fellows, which, apparently, some schools don’t. We all went through the first hard years together. And though we lost a few—two quit within a couple of months—most of the teachers that started that year are still at my school.
I work at one of the new small schools in NYC, in the Bronx, and they let the teachers do a lot of the decision-making. It’s a 6th – 12th grade school, and I’ve taught just about every grade level. I started off teaching ESL, since that’s what the Fellows placed me in. My first choice was high-school English—I have an M.A. in English after all—but ESL is more of a high-need subject and I had taught in Japan. But after completing my coursework in TOESL I was able to take the subject test in English, have my transcripts evaluated and get a second teaching license in English without taking any extra classes. Now, this year, I teach 8th and 9th grade English and AP English for seniors. This week I’ll start after-school tutoring for my former ESL students so that they can pass the ELA Regents—really hard for someone who came in 10th grade not speaking any English.
I was really proud when I got accepted by the Fellows. And I got in while the going was still good. The year I started the Fellows hired over 3,000 teachers. Two years later a hiring freeze was put in place, whose restrictions are only now beginning to lift somewhat. I felt really fortunate to have gotten in when I did, but nevertheless it wasn’t easy to make it through the first years of inexperience and taking classes toward teacher-certification while being the single mother of a six year old.
Every day at my job is tiring, I won’t lie. And I spend a lot of time at home at night and on the weekends doing work for my classes. It’s really impossible not to. But things are changing at my school for the better. The first year there were fights in the halls weekly if not daily, and now that is a fairly rare occurrence. Kids used to sleep in classes regularly and you just don’t see that the way you once did. My first year I had a kid snoring audibly in class one day—I just kind of marveled.
We still have metal detectors and airport-style scanning at the door, which is depressing. We have gang recruitment going on inside and outside the school. We have kids with parole officers and who have been in and out of prison and juvie by 10th grade and it’s really, really sad. Similarly, I get some devastating colleges essays from seniors about foster care, neglect, witnessing of abuse and being abused, and yes, we have numerous teen moms. But most of the kids are making it through and god knows I and my colleagues are all trying to help.
My favorite thing about being an English teacher is getting to read the kids’ essays and this paper by an 8th grader had me cracking up on the subway yesterday. All the testing is depressing and all the negative press about teachers and the new evaluation systems and the budget cuts … but I try to focus on the kids and I get inspired by their spirit and intelligence and I have hope. And that, to me, is brilliant.