By Carly Mitchell / New York City
(The author, a public-school teacher, is using a pseudonym for professional reasons)
Last Thursday (Sept. 8) marked the first day back to school for New York City public-school students. And for this teacher, it was glorious!
This is my second year teaching seventh grade English at a Title 1 school in Brooklyn. Before that, I taught high school for three years at a small Title 1 charter school in Brooklyn. Title 1 simply means a school in which the majority of students come from low-income families. Roughly 85 percent of students at my middle school qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Fall of 2021 was chaotic. Many students and teachers had not been in a school building for over a year, and lots of kids were rusty when it came to socializing with peers. There were physical fights, and a need to constantly remind students to pull up their masks (“I should only see your eyes!”). On top of that, a whopping 75 percent of my seventh graders were reading below grade level. It was difficult because of masks to get to know my new students and colleagues without being able to see their faces, and folks were stressed out about getting themselves and others sick. It was intense.
Their worries were not misplaced, I was one of many people in my school who contracted Covid. Twice. I am vaccinated and boosted and therefore was not too sick either time, but I certainly didn’t feel fabulous. The first time I tested positive was Christmas Eve, in the midst of a citywide Covid breakout that rocked schools across all five boroughs. The second time was in late April.
Mercifully. this first week back at school was a whole different story.
The atmosphere on Thursday was lighter. Teachers and students seemed genuinely happy to be back after two uneasy and unpredictable years. There were plenty of smiles to go around. Masks are no longer mandatory and while some students and teachers are still choosing to wear them, I would estimate that about 85-90 percent of the staff and student body are opting to go maskless. Personally, I am opting to go maskless. I feel comfortable enough now to begin the year without a face covering. For the most part, things felt somewhat “normal,” a word that has come to signify a pandemically altered lifestyle these days.
The first group of students I saw were my homeroom students, a large group of 28 who would also be my first class of the day. Only 18 of them showed up on the first day, which is sadly predictable. Most of the kids who were present appeared eager and energetic, happy to be back in the school with a bit more clout now that they aren’t the youngest anymore. There were, of course, a few who were nervous, but after I showed them a goofy picture of myself in the seventh grade (always a great icebreaker) and played some fun introductory games with them, the vibe was looser and I could tell students felt more comfortable.
Conversations with fellow teachers revealed that many felt the same way that I do. In general, folks were pretty happy to be back. Colleagues told me about their summers, spending time with their families, vacationing in places like Atlantic City and the Poconos. Even the few brave souls who taught summer school were in high spirits.
This year I am teaching three sections (classes) of English Language Arts. Class sizes overall are bigger this year. My largest two classes have 28 and 27 students each, while my smallest has 17. This is unfortunately not due to increasing enrollment. New York City public schools are actually rapidly losing students to charter schools. This is a nuanced issue, but the pandemic exposed many issues that public schools face, like being bombarded by frequent budget cuts. More on this in future columns! Larger class sizes can be a challenge because sometimes the bigger the group, the more likely there are to be behavioral issues. But that is not what worries me. What I am fretting about is supplies.
On Thursday, the teachers in my department were told that we would not have enough workbooks for each child in our classes because of budgeting wars that are being fought among city officials. This means, for example, that for my class of 28 students, I will receive only 20 workbooks. This is not a new problem–there have always been budgeting issues started by the people at the top who don’t seem to think about the ways in which their juvenile debates trickle down into city classrooms. But it is a difficult situation that will involve some creative solutions (feel free to email me if you have any).
Nevertheless, I remain optimistic about the pending school year. My students are ready to learn. They have already asked me to teach them script, which is no longer taught in the lower grades. And many of them have told me that they want to become better at writing essays. Joy!!
One more thing to be happy about? The air conditioning unit in my classroom is finally working. This may not seem like a very big deal, but in a school like mine with an ancient infrastructure, this is something to celebrate. My running joke last year with students was that our air conditioning unit doubled as a water park. That is how much water spurted from the damn thing whenever it was turned on. Well, it is a water park no more! Celebrate the small wins. Hip hip HOORAY!
Carly Mitchell (a pseudonym) is a public-school teacher in Brooklyn N.Y. who loves to learn, to educate, and to expose the hypocrisy of New York City politicians.