This month, we are kicking off a new column, featuring Rachel Parsons, a teacher in New York City. With teachers on the front lines in the battle against public education, Rachel discusses the complexities of the job, including the complex dimensions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and how they intersect with learning and schools. Rachel will also touch the question of democratic voice in education for students, teachers and parents, challenges of working with the union, and the daily rewards and challenges that make up the job. —Ed
A day in the life
I walk into my classroom and there are four students. Four.
“Good morning, mathematicians,” I boom, “I’m really glad you’re here … but what did you do with the rest of my class?”
One of my students looks up from her Do Now and speaks slowly to me, as if explaining something very obvious, “It’s WEDNESDAY, Rachel. No one comes to school on WEDNESDAY.” That’s what they said about Tuesday. And Monday. And Friday.
“Right. How silly of me,” I reply drily. “Grab your binders, let’s get started.”
I work at a transfer school on the west side of Manhattan. Our kids come from all five boroughs and each has had trouble at their previous high school before joining us. My colleagues are dedicated. Our class sizes, small. Our pedagogy dynamic, creative, interesting, and socially situated within the worlds they inhabit. Frankly, we work our asses off. And still. I have four.
This is Math for Social Justice class. It’s an investigation of economics and statistics through a social justice lens. It’s designed for students who struggle with the basics without dumbing things down and making them repeat another … remedial … class. We learn about race, wealth, and education. We design budgets, discuss living wages, and become organizers of a union. We investigate credit cards, compound interest rates, and things to watch out for when the bank is trying to profit off of us. We ask the question: “How can statistics be both accurate and misleading?” to challenge the idea that numbers are absolute and can’t be argued. We read, write, discuss, present, and practice mathematics, building basic number sense and critical thinking skills through the process.
One of my students is a bright young man who has missed a lot of formal schooling. He’s been sleeping on subway trains for the last few months because he doesn’t have a place to stay. He is struggling through the red tape of government assistance as an 18-year-old male with no dependents and no family. Incredibly disruptive, rude and disrespectful one day, he is an insightful, discerning leader the next. On our mid-semester course evaluation, he wrote, “This is the best class I’ve ever taken in school. At first I had no idea what we were gonna learn about, but now I get it. It’s the stuff that they’re supposed to teach you but they don’t. I am already using it in my life and will continue to do so in the future.” He asks probing questions in class, challenging his peers to think deeper. His writing is thorough and clear. His mathematics: on point. He takes pictures of documents in class on his phone and sends them to his friends. Still, his attendance rate is about 40%. Another 10% of the time he shows up, but is so disruptive that I have to send him to the counselor to process what happened and discuss how to avoid being a disruptive force in our community. Sigh. This is hard.
Next period: Advisory. My job is to guide these 15 adolescents both academically and socially. It’s our family unit within the school. It ensures that every student and their family have a deep connection with at least one adult on our staff. We meet four times a week in the social worker’s office, who has an uncanny ability to love you and challenge you at the same time.
I enter to a full room. “Alright, y’all, did you collect any more donations?” Trayvon Martin had just been murdered. After discussing it in class and Town Meeting, kids asked me to help them organize a fundraiser for the family’s legal fees. One of my boys is leading it. He was assaulted by the cops the semester before and put in jail for the night. They threatened to deport him and his foster mom had to hire a lawyer to keep him in the country. “Legal fees are expensive, you guys, we need to do something for his family.” The kids had designed a button that they gave away for any size donation. Their goals were to raise money and awareness, and within a week, most of the faculty, students and staff were rockin’ their “I am Trayvon Martin” pins. Today we are finishing up our fundraising goal poster and writing a thank you card to a college friend of mine. She visited the school and was so inspired by the students that she donated all the money to get the buttons printed.
After a brief lunch it’s time for Algebra class. Two sections. Some of my kids have passed their state exams but can’t isolate variables. My last period is small, about 13 students. We’ve settled in after our routine of an initial student presentation and I am starting class discussion with an open-ended question about systems of equations. Antonio flutters his hand enthusiastically in the air. He is half-lifted out of his seat, eyes fixed on mine, fanning the air with his palm, vying for my attention—this must be urgent.
“Yes, sir?” I inquire.
“Rachel, have you looked around this room?” He pauses for dramatic effect,
opening his eyes wide. “This class is sooooo gay.”
My usual response to these types of comments is to follow up with something like: “Explain to me how this relates to the math that we’re exploring or we are disregarding your statement and going back to the task at hand.” But today, I look around the room. There are four young gay men. Two transgendered students. There’s me, their queer teacher. That’s half of us. There is one gender non-conforming student, three sci-fi alternative skate boarders, and … Hector, a very proud young Dominican man who surprises me with perceptive questions amidst a stream of comments like “I can’t do this” and “Yo, math is stupid.” Oh man. This class is very queer. Antonio catches my little smile before I re-direct back to the lesson, giggling while he picks up his pencil.
About halfway through class Addison gets up and starts voguing in the corner.
At least s/he isn’t blurting out and yelling about getting high. AND s/he is carrying his/her class notebook while s/he dances it out. The other students are used to her/him by now and continue copying notes from the board. Class goes on. It’s not the kind of order most folks are used to, but it works for us.
“RACHEL!” Addison yells.
“Yes dear, I’m right here, no need to yell. What do you need?”
“Sooorrrry, Rachel.” S/he pauses, squinted at the board. “I think you messed up when you were isolating x. Weren’t you supposed to ADD three?”
I look down at my work. Yep, I messed up. “You’re right. Thanks, Addison.”
“No problem, Rachel, I got you.” S/he goes back to dancing in the corner.
After school tutorial. A few members of my morning class are staying after to work on their final papers they present in lieu of standardized exams. “Hey Coach!” one of my kids smiles as he walks in to the room. Last year he dubbed tutoring “Math Stadium” and it stuck. This young man is a struggling English Language Learner and has to write four 10-page papers over two semesters in order to graduate. He later goes on to do just that, but as of now, he is here typing furiously on the computer. “Hey Rachel, can we listen to music?” I agree. “I think you will know this one,” he smiles. It’s MJ. I smile back. He remembers that “Man in the Mirror” is my all-time favorite song. We sing and type and work and smile until 4:30 when we all pack up and head out.
I meet some of my co-workers at the bar down the street. We are friends. We respect each other. Work hard together. Perform miracles together and fail together. Of different politic, background, and ultimate ambitions, we are all united in our mission. This is to get our kids to earn their diplomas, learn about humanity, democracy and community in the process, and become critical thinkers and actors in the world.
Some kids drop out, but many of them pass and do just that. They come back and visit (we can’t keep them away). Join the army. Go to college. Start college and drop out. Go back. Drop out. Some come back and work at the school. Some succeed by conventional measures and others succeed by their own, but I am sure of one thing: every student leaves here better for having been part of our community. It’s not your usual school, but then again, usual schools are not serving the students that I work with. That’s how we all got to this little corner of New York City in the first place.