Jeff Stafford co-taught at P.S. 13 in Queens.
I was standing next to the door to our homeroom this summer as my co-teacher got well into her lesson on long division, when I heard our fearless leader, Karim, say, “Jeff, I’d like you to meet Carmen Farina.”
“Um, hello,” I said.
“Hi,” she replied, brightly.
“Jeff, can you tell Ms. Farina what is going on in the classroom right now?”
“Of course,” I said, calmly gulping down a small collection of saliva that had suddenly pooled in my throat. “My co-teacher is just starting a lesson on long division, using place value.”
“And what is your role in this?” asked the New York City Schools Chancellor.
“My role is to float around the classroom, keeping track of how the students are working and helping out the ones who lose focus or seem confused. I’m basically filling in the gaps where it seems necessary.”
At least, I said something to that effect. My co-teacher was asked over and she answered a few questions about what her goals were and how this program was helping her move in that direction. She was eager to answer this question as her goals went beyond the classroom. They had a cordial conversation in agreement about how experience in the classroom was necessary for anyone who planned to be in education administration. Ms. Farina herself had, of course, spent over 20 years in the classroom before becoming a school principal. As someone whose aspirations are to be in the classroom, I stepped back and continued on with my work checking in on the students.
It was an exciting morning for everyone at PS 13 in Queens as the Chancellor toured all the classrooms there and spent some time interviewing students and teachers. It was one of many this past summer but it’s certainly not what meant the most to me about the experience. That’s because I got to spend five weeks with a group of nineteen eager, earnest, sometimes feisty, always questioning, testing, and laughing students.
I got to watch two students, genuinely devastated by surprise early exits in the fourth-grade spelling bee, come back to cheer their classmates on in the finals. I got to play basketball, four corners and Ships and Sailors with the students during our daily free play in the gym. I taught a lesson using story drama with the kids as they eagerly acted out a story I told, while their classmates followed along rapt and raucous.
And I got to meet their parents or guardians. One was a young woman who was always so appreciative of the care we were giving her brother, saying the only thing she wanted was for him to have a good experience this summer. It seemed to be no trouble for the boy who always had a smile on his face and eagerly joined in activities to his fullest. I found out later that not only was she the only caregiver he had, but that their father had only recently passed away. She was twenty-three years old. I felt like I was in the presence of a genuine hero when I met her and I told her so.
The list of life-altering experiences goes on, but I won’t. It was a hard summer. It was an incredible learning experience. The training we did in the weeks prior to leaping into our classrooms prepared me for all of it… and none of it. Managing a classroom, differentiating my lessons, observing students – we studied and practiced all of that. And we always had our brilliant supervising teacher to fall back on for questions. But while we were in the room, it was our show. Rolling up our sleeves, engaging directly and personally with kids who needed us, needed our help, wanted our attention, wanted to be our friend as well as our student – this was what the experience was all about.
I made a ton of mistakes and learned from every one of them. But each day I saw them, the kids seemed to have forgotten all the foolish things I had said the day before, the way I mismanaged the timing in my lesson, how I had forgotten to walk them past the breakfast table on the way up to class, etc… none of that really mattered. What mattered is that I came back every day and so did they. We got together and we got to work. And we had a great time doing it!
If you’re interested in changing a life this summer as a Teaching Fellow, apply here by March 6th!