Arthur

When you were in college, did you have that one professor who pushed you to want to change the world?  Make a difference?  Make the future brighter?

For me, this was Dr. Arthur Conigan,*  professor of English Education.  At first, his teaching seemed absolutely quacky.   He’d ask us to sit in a circle each and every class, so no chance of catching a nap in the back of the room. Billy would catch my eye as if to say “What are we in, kindergarten or graduate school?”  Janice would whisper, “Is this guy for real?” And Tiffany would mumble, “Maybe we’re going to play duck-duck-goose?”  The entire feel of the class was different than any other. But aren’t all the best classes?

Arthur had us free-write at the beginning of every class and then reflect on our thinking. We were to call him Arthur and not Dr. Conigan. We did A LOT of group work, projects, and collaborative presentations.  Papers were always to be reflections instead of essays citing and regurgitating notes. There was never any “down-time” and I don’t remember any lengthy lectures.  We did most of the talking.  He asked numerous open ended questions.  At any given moment he’d turn to me and ask, “Well, what do you think about that, Nancy?” so paying attention was a must. He’d plan trips for us all the way uptown Manhattan, knowing most of us worked in Queens!  We examined photography at New York Historical Society and Film and dance at Lincoln Center and wrote more reflections. It felt like so much work on our part!

His quirkiness became a cause for stress at times because we didn’t get why he kept showing us all these things and never telling us what to do with them. “We are creatures of habit. We are uncomfortable moving away from ‘normal'” he’d chime after too many sighs and sideway glances. After two semesters with Arthur, I decided to switch out of his program and into a “normal” class.

I sat in a seat in the back of the room the first day of my thesis class. I planned on grading papers if the class moved to slow. But as I listened to this newly appointed professor (whose name I sincerely can’t remember for the life of me) ramble on and on, I finally got what Arthur was doing.

Which type of teacher would I become?  Which teacher would I emulate when it was my time to stand in front of a classroom? Which class would foster true learning and which would allow students to tune-out?

I darted to the program offices immediately after to speak with Arthur and ask to be placed back into his classroom. I might have even teared up a little to enhance my request. But he said “No.”  He gave me a few resources to help me get through the course and sent me on my way.

Whenever Janice or Billy walked into my classroom and saw the desks arranged in a circle, they’d smile and say “Conigan?” For years I recreated the projects he showed us – personal timeline, portrait of a reader, photography analysis.  I took my students on a minimum of two trips per year. I held class outdoors whenever possible and encouraged students to write reflections on their books instead of summaries. I adopted into practice as many activities as I could and adjusted them to my liking.

Somewhere between years 5-7,  I stopped.  I got bogged down by new curriculum after new curriculum, scripted lessons, test-prep materials, timed-prototypes of the reader’s and writer’s workshop, tests, tests, and more tests.  I did less aesthetic learning and more test prep.  More scripts.  Less trips.  Not to mention, I bought a house, got in over my head, took a part-time job at Starbucks and collapsed in exhaustion at the end of every single day.  Two things became very clear:

  1. Teaching is beyond full-time work.  The time we spend in the classroom is only a quarter of what we do as educators.  It’s another quarter of prep time to keep our lessons engaging.  Then another quarter grading and assessing what the students are learning so we can make adjustments.
  2. Teachers need to be life-long-learners, which is the last quarter of our teaching life.  We need to keep learning and not lose sight of what it’s like to be a student.  Professional development only goes so far, especially when it’s designed by test prep companies and (cringe) administrators who have forgotten the reality of being in the classroom.  We need to know more than just the latest teaching buzzwords.  If the learning speaks to our interests and passions, it will transfer to what we are teaching in the classroom.

It took a lot of work to get over that slump, but the pay-off was amazing.  My classroom is everything I dreamed it could be.  The work continues, however.  Fortunately, New York City has so many museums, parks and educational institutes that constantly invite teachers to come in and see what they have to offer.  This year alone, I’ve been to The Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 Memorial and Columbia University, Teachers College, for teacher professional development.  What does this mean for my classroom?  Trips!  Guest Speakers!  And new stories to read and write about!

While visiting Queens College for the 3rd time in the past three months to obtain yet another document to send to the UAE, I was tempted to poke my head into Arthur’s office.  I wanted to know what he thought of teaching abroad.  His career was centered on assisting new teachers succeed in urban public schools.  I wonder if he’d appreciate hearing from one of those teachers who made it past the first years and perhaps have some insights as to what to do during these middle years.  There must be a reason teachers qualify for sabbatical after 14 years.  There must be a reason why I feel like I should immerse myself into somethingnew at this point in my career.

 

*Name Changed for Privacy

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“Unfortunately…”

Rejection is never easy and you’ve got to believe that there’s another path you’re meant to be on.  Still, it’s not easy hearing “No.”

I was a mere 18 years old when I was fired from my first “real”job as a secretary at Bonnette Associates*.  The office was located on quaint, tree-lined Seventh Street in Garden City, NY. As one of four secretaries, my job duties included typing letters, making photocopies and getting Paul’s coffee.  I was also expected to get Ms. Cauffer’s husband coffee when he visited the office.  Fitting in also meant playing “cheerleader” at their annual golf events and dressing up as a bear for their winter costume party.  So, when Ms. Cauffer said, “I don’t think you’re a right fit for this company,” the day she fired me, she couldn’t have been more correct.  This didn’t make it any easier to accept.  I actually loved the other secretaries and associates I worked with.  I loved going to lunch at the Newport Grill or Orchid.  I loved that we had a snack room with pretzels and mustard.  I was 18.  So for the next few hours, after cleaning out my desk, I cried to my sister as she worked a shift folding shirts at the Gap, in Roosevelt Field.  And then I booked a trip to Florida to visit family and get some perspective.

As tough as it was to deal with this rejection, if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have ended up finding a job with Bell Labs and working with 3 amazing women in the advertising department.  Each of them had gone to college and landed a job they loved.  While I was once again a secretary, the company atmosphere was a lot different.  My boss, Cathy, VP of Advertising, did not expect me to fetch her coffee.  When we had clients come in for meetings, I was introduced as the Media and Promotions Assistant rather than secretary # 4.  I was invited to review promotional products and my opinion actually mattered!  Sorry to the artist whose song “Peaches” didn’t make it into our commercial!

At our 6 month review, Cathy brought me into her office to go over my work.  She complimented my organization, my initiative and my intelligence.  Her words have stuck with me all this time.  “Go to college.  You’re too smart for this.”

I enrolled in a writing program at LIU 3 months later and the rest is education history!

So, when I received the email from the recruiter for Qatar schools saying, “Unfortunately, the school has decided to move forward with another candidate…” my heart ached and my head swirled and my eyes burned.  I didn’t find the need to flat out sob, but that was due to having my husband and babies around to make me feel better.

I jumped on the computer as soon as I had a moment to start applying to other jobs abroad. I found a few schools looking for teachers directly and sent out my resume and registered with a few more sites to keep my options flowing.

Less than 24 hours after that email, I got a few text messages from fellow candidates I met in the New York City interview for Abu Dhabi.  “I got an email!” “I’m moving forward!” “Contracts will be sent out within the next few weeks!”  I updated my email screen a dozen times until my email came.  I took a deep breath, read the words and sighed in relief.  I’m on to the next round with Abu Dhabi!  I have no contract, so this is not set in stone, but it’s a very good sign!

Rejection just means there’s another path you’re meant to be on!

*Company names have been changed for privacy

 

 

 

 

 

“I’m A Peach”

“What team do you play for?”

“I’m a Peach, sir.” 

“Really? Because I can’t understand why you would…..are you crying?  Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball! There’s no crying in baseball!”

– A League of Their Own

Well. I’m a Teach-er, not a Peach, sir. And there’s plenty of crying in teaching. I remember at the end of my first year of teaching, last day of school, the tears came rolling down as I drove home.  I didn’t cry the entire year despite getting placed as a literacy teacher instead of a regularly appointed English teacher. Despite traveling to 11 different classrooms on 4 different floors across 2 separate wings of the school, instead of having my own classroom. Despite having a student (Alexandria-never forget THAT name) behave so badly that she had to be removed from the class permanently to sit with the dean. I remember my mentor calling me the “Rookie of the year” and me thinking “you’re damn right I am.”  And suddenly the tears began to pour. 

I’ve seen plenty of teachers cry throughout their first year. The feeling of “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I don’t know what to expect” is overwhelming. It’s no wonder so many quit within the 1st few years! It takes a certain type of person to teach!  You might call this type of person “crazy.”

So I feel a bit “crazy” for putting all this effort into something that is going to be as challenging as that 1st year. Our dining room table is stacked with papers, documents, lesson plans and portfolio pieces I’ve decided didn’t make the cut. The rest of the house is in disarray because I’ve been so focused on the interviews that I have no time to put all the playdough in a secure location. Two suitcases were discarded for a small carry-on when I saw the $25 baggage fee for AA. “Mommy, can I come to work with you?” Baby Z asked before I left for JFK. “I wish, but your plane ticket is no longer free.”

I flew down to Atlanta, home of the Georgia Peaches, on Sunday and checked into the Omni Downtown (Rockford Peaches were from Illinois BTW and I didn’t see a peach anywhere in Georgia. I was so hoping to meet one, namely, on the dessert menus).  The Omni was a quick walk across Centennial Park and Atlanta’s “London Eye” to the hotel where interviews for Qatar would take place. I was looking forward to doing some sight seeing, eating southern food and sushi, and getting lots of extra sleep.  

If you’re ever in Atlanta, may I recommend the following:

1. Download and use UBER. It is very affordable  compared to UBER New York. Somehow, I did not feel comfortable on their MARTA trains at all and I ride the A Train in New York. 

2. Enjoy a ride on their cute little streetcar. And then realize you could’ve walked to all the stops within 30 minutes. Ah well, it’s only a dollar and it gets you to Dr. King’s birth home in no time at all. 

3. Go to Eight Sushi Lounge for amazing Nigri and a delightful, welcoming staff. I really wanted to eat there everyday, but I had to get something southern. 

4. I went to Gus’s World Famous for fried chicken and it was ok. I went to The Food Shoppe for shrimp and grits and they were delicious! I only need add a dash of hot sauce to enhance the experience.  The chef offered me a sample of chicken and Mac – perfection!  At Ted’s Montana Grill, the wait staff does a great job of describing each homemade dish but, I didn’t find it to be anymore tasty than a box of frozen apps from Friday’s. 

5. Do all your fun sight seeing before going on your job interview. Because after is a sea of great unknowns. 

I went into the interview feeling confident and assured. I met with the director of schools and we had a great conversation on education, life in various cities and my family!  He asked to see pictures of the kids. He seemed delighted and asked me to interview with a second person, the director of the ELL program. I was thrilled!  After an hour or so, I met my second interviewer and my confidence dropped. His questions were a lot tougher. How do you identify a student with a learning disability vs. a language barrier? How do you assess a students progress when they can’t be measured by state exams? What assessments are given to your students and what do they look like? If a student is identified with a learning disability, what recommendations do you make to their resource team and what adjustments do you make to ensure learning is taking place in your classroom?

These were questions that I had answers to, but I wasn’t articulating them as clearly as I would’ve liked. As I flipped through my portfolio I got the sense he was not incredibly impressed. And as I walked out of the room, I didn’t get a “I look forward to having you work with us” vibe. 

I thanked the recruiter and headed back to the hotel. The drab gray sky and overly chilly weather (and flurries) fit my mood perfectly.  I tried to nap but woke after only 20 minutes. Then I got a text from an amazing teacher and fellow candidate I met while waiting to interview. As it turns out, we are actually neighbors in Queens, NY!  We met for lunch and drinks and I began to feel much better. “If it’s meant for you then it will be.” 

So as I sit on this plane bound for home, I tense up, not knowing what to expect and question if I really know what I’m doing. I am grateful for the opportunity to review what 13 years of teaching looks like. I’ve defined my teaching philosophy, solidified my resume and gathered valuable artifacts that show who I am as an educator. The interviews are over and now we wait.  There’s nothing to cry over just yet. 

Stability vs. Adventure

“You’ve been at the same school for 13 years…why would you want to leave to teach in Abu Dhabi?”

I’ve heard this question before.  Phrased differently, however.

  • “Why do you want to teacher here?”
  • “Why did you choose to apply for a job in this country?”
  • “Why this country, at this time?”

But my interviewers phrased in such away that gave me pause…why leave after 13 years?

As I was walking into work today, I fell in step with a colleague who I really hadn’t spoken to in a long time.  He teaches gym on the 1st floor and I’m on the 2nd so, we never really see each other.  I asked him, “How long have you been teaching here?”

“19 years. In this building.  I started here and never left.”

“Wow, me too…”

“That’s what makes this building great.  The number of people who stayed.”

I think I teared up.  Fortunately we reached the time clock, moved our cards and I hurried off to my room after mumbling “Have a great day!”  I glanced twice as I hurried past  the room of a teacher who just retired in December after 50 years! He’d been there when the school opened! My two buddies who I got my Master’s Degree with at Queens College – still here.  Am I looking at this all wrong?  The building is by no means perfect, but the staff, at this point, is full of very talented teachers.  It’s seen a few crazies, but it seems like this year we might have only one (out of 170 or so).  And I’ve already mentioned how great my students are!  Am I crazy to leave?  Am I crazy to stay?

Waiting for a decision really gets your mind running in a thousand different directions.  Stay? Go? Transfer? Childcare leave of absence? Sabbatical? Change professions? Become a trainer? Get a PhD? Get an extension license? Try teaching a different grade? Stay in the US but go to VA or NC or FL?  Become a professor?

So I figured what has me willing to leave.  Aside from not owning a house nor any means of buying one, I don’t have the quality of life for my family that I think they deserve. Great neighborhood lined with picket fences, but awful schools.  Work hours and commutes that are so long that we can’t eat dinner together as a family or enjoy an evening stroll afterwards.  The kids can’t play outside on their own because stray bullets plague the area.  Watching the Suzie Orman show and wondering how people get $375,000 in retirement funds, and $75,000 in liquid assets.

Maybe this opportunity is what my grandfather sought when he uprooted his family from Ecuador and came to Queens, New York.  He sought a better quality of life for his family, which consisted at the time of a wife with two sons from a previous marriage and four of his own children.  Party of 8 in a one-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights!  Despite a language barrier and limited job options for foreigners, he and my grandmother worked their way into owning a home and supporting the kids, grandchildren, great grandchildren…His yellow house in Woodside, Queens, became a haven for us all at some point in time.  He was so proud of his home, his garden, his little piece of paradise in the concrete jungle. He made the leap and ensured a better future for us all.

So, I’m searching for the new “New York.”  A place where we can have a life outside of work.  I don’t know that we will find it overseas.  But I’m willing to step out of shadow of skyscrapers in order to feel the sun.

 

 

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“Do You Think You Might Stay Longer than 3 Years?”

I met the recruiter in the lobby of the Mariott Marquis as we both asked the front desk which conference rooms we should head to.

“Conference rooms? No we have a room for you…Room 1751.”

So we head up to the 17th floor with one other candidate and open the door to an itsy-bitsy hotel room lined with about 10 chairs, a couch and two arm chairs.

“How many people are you expecting?” I asked Irma.

“About 35 from us, but probably more from other recruiters.”

I looked around the mini-room and situated myself in a comfy armchair instead of the stiff conference room chairs.  Staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows, I could see 8th avenue…drab compared to the lights of Times Square…

A few seconds later a woman walked in looking poised and professional and headed toward me – I pointed and tilted my head and we hugged in recognition!  Right here on WordPress, I met a woman all the way from Philly, preparing to interview around the globe like me!  Check out her blog at https://phillygirl77.wordpress.com/  – She truly inspired me to really go through with this!

We were fortunate to already have tons to talk about and I think it really calmed my nerves.  We were going to “Rock these interviews!”  I looked over my resume and relaxed – momentarily.  The room began to fill with way more than 35 people, the temperature on the rise and no water in sight.  I assessed my peers.  I counted one blond hair, blue-eyed woman among a sea every shade of brown.  I counted 5 men out of about 40 women.  And I looked for fellow New Yorkers, but only got every other city on the Eastern Seaboard.

Now while I didn’t talk to EVERYONE, I definitely did my share of networking.  Nearly every person I spoke with sounded like a great candidate and a great teacher.  The experience of meeting so many wonderful people made the day even more worth it; A fellow teacher with little ones, a young girl whom I would love to have as my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, and a recent divorcee, ready to venture out on her own. As each person headed into a room to interview, I sincerely sang “Good luck!”  Their students would be lucky to have any one of us!

Irma apologized over and over for the awful room the Mariott provided, which we used as a “holding cell” until our names were called.  She got on the phone with the front desk and demanded water be brought up.  “It’s a basic human right,” she roared.  They wanted to charge us $12 per bottle!  Eventually, water was supplied.  I was not impressed at all by the Mariott’s service and hospitality, which I hope they read about on Yelp!

So I think I hopped up and skipped a little when I was called to interview.  It was via Skype or something like it.  Me, alone in a room, with a computer.  On the other end, an assistant principal of the English Department and an administrator from the program. Both were American.  I was expecting at least one Emirati, but it was a lot like interviewing for an American school.

Questions:

  • How do you differentiate instruction?
  • How do you assess your student’s learning?
  • If I were to walk into your classroom, what would I see?
  • Give an example of a lesson your taught that was successful…

I was prepared for all of these.  I was not prepared for:

  • Do you think you would stay longer than the contractual 3 years?
  • After 13 years at the same school, why do you want to teach in Abu Dhabi?
  • Do you understand that we strongly suggest that teachers come without their families to set everything up and bring their families over later?

The last few I did not expect and I don’t think I gave the best answers:

  • Uh, it really depends on how it goes…
  • I’m hoping to someday return to New York and better serve our Arabic-speaking population of students
  • I’ve spoken with my husband about our family being separated for a while and we will have to seriously consider that…

What I should’ve said was:

  • I will stay as long as it takes to get the job done!
  • I have a strong desire to work with an organization that is on the forefront of reform and to share my expertise in English
  • I am willing to do what ever it takes to do the job!

When it was all over, I felt good.  I felt like I gave my best interview and if they wanted me, they’d let me know.  If not, then I’m bound for something else!

To celebrate, Kennesha, Shina and I went to an amazing Japanese BBQ for lunch.  I’ve had BBQ before, but this was REALLY the best, save for a lack of great veggies.  I want to rave about them some more…but I’ll save it for Yelp!

Now, we wait!

 

Interview # 2

It’s 5:20 am the morning of my Abu Dhabi Teaching Interview.  In 10 minutes, I’m jumping into the black-with-faint-pin-stripes-skirt-suit that looks pretty good despite being one size too small.  In 30 minutes I’ll be hopping onto an express bus bound for mid-town Manhattan where I will meet with the recruiter, submit a folder full of documents on USB and prepare to be interviewed.  I have not had to interview for a job in over 10 years.

Things remember:

  • I have 13 years of experience
  • I love teaching
  • I love children
  • Children seem to love being in my class if they don’t allow their teen angst to get in the way
  • This teaching abroad thing is probably going to be A LOT of work, so I really should just stay where I am
  • But I really want a new experience
  • And make sure my shirt buttons neatly across my chest at all times.  I can’t find a safety pin.

My interview with California English Schools in China was really casual via Skype.  The recruiter seemed to have every confidence that I could teach in China.  However, moving my family there was going to be a challenge, the salary may be lower than expected and I should really research where I want to live before he starts searching for a school for me.  Interesting.  I’m keeping it on the back burner for a week or two.

Qatar is next week and I think it’s my #1 choice.  Abu Dhabi has a lot of travel, sights and life-style to offer, but schooling my kids will be very pricey.  Again, I don’t even have a job offer yet.  What was I thinking, putting this all out there?

Wish me luck!