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The Reflective Teacher: Support Your Teachersby Gail Beyrer

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Gail Beyrer, an AmeriCorps veteran whose husband also is a teacher, teaches fourth grade on Long Island, New York.

My husband and I both come from families in which education is valued; many of our family members work in the education field. We both began our teaching careers with the New York City Board of Education. We usually have the same vacation times, and we both can tell stories that would break your heart about children who have succeeded against all odds.

That is where our career similarities end, however. My husband currently is teaching emotionally disturbed seventh and eighth graders in Queens; I left a position in Manhattan to teach fourth graders on Long Island. I am generally encouraged and supported by my colleagues, my administration, and the community. He feels fortunate if he meets 50 percent of his students' parents and can find a security guard when the situation warrants it.

Gail Beyrer

When my husband and I talk about our days, I might share an anecdote about a child who didn't complete an assignment or one who doesn't know how to tell time. My husband shares vivid stories of fights and mediations, of calling parents for support and getting only defensive anger.

In my husband's school, administrative tasks are not handled the way they are in my district. He speaks of last-minute deadlines for major projects, and of a policy not to discuss serious current events with students -- lest they get upset. Shared decision making doesn't exist. How can it? The size of the educational bureaucracy is intimidating even to those most familiar with it; community members who want to get involved have no idea how to go about doing so.

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When I first started teaching in Manhattan, I believed that the system could change. And, after reading Savage Inequalities by Jonathon Kozol, I just knew that I was going to be one of those teachers who was going to change things and help level the playing field. I was going to unsnarl the tangled bureaucracy of the New York City Board of Education (commonly referred to in New York simply as THE Board of Ed) and make a difference. I was going to change the world!

Two years later, I felt instead that I was regressing as a teacher. I frequently wondered whether I was hurting my students instead of helping them. I asked myself what progress they were making. I didn't believe that I was changing anything except my attitude towards the possibility of change. I knew I needed to make a move. Through a series of fortuitous events, I was offered the job I currently hold on Long Island.

Here, I have grown as an educator. I think there are some key identifiable elements that have made that growth possible.

In my first year teaching in Manhattan, I was one of seven fifth-grade teachers. Two of us were brand new. By the time I had completed my first year of teaching, however, I was considered a "veteran," and no one paid any extra attention to me. As a second-year teacher, I simply was expected to handle all situations professionally and independently; all resources had to go to the next batch of new teachers -- a number that was consistently high.

In the suburbs of Long Island, on the other hand, in my fourth year of teaching, I am still thought of as a "newer" teacher -- someone at the beginning of her career. I am encouraged to take risks, to try the latest techniques, to use my classroom as a laboratory. I am being set up for success.

In Manhattan, support staff members were incredibly overwhelmed. (Aren't they always!?) Once, I was actually discouraged from filling out paperwork on a child because the guidance counselor/keeper of the forms said the child didn't need academic services, just a more stable home life. Only the most serious issues were looked at and there were many in our K-5 school of almost 1,500 students.

On Long Island, when a child is in danger of failing or needs academic assistance, I am actually empowered to get them help. Because our school is small, many children are able to receive support. The likelihood of follow-up is greater, because there is not a high turnover among the faculty. Certainly, the situation in which I find myself today isn't perfect, but comparably speakingit's uplifting!

Of course, I can speak only from my own experiences in an urban environment, and from the information my husband shares with me. I know that, here in New York and across the country, there are many city schools where quality comes first and where children are succeeding. I know, too, that the teachers with whom I worked in Manhattan were the best for which I could have hoped. The "third floor crew" was always there to help and support me on those days when I felt I wasn't going to make it.

Teaching is hard wherever you are, but there's no reason to make it harder. The difference in my current position is that here I am being set-up for success by an incredible principal and supportive faculty. Therefore, I have the mental, physical, and emotional energy to do the same for my students. Just as we understand that if our children are hungry, they will not learn successfully, I have learned that a teacher who is starving for support cannot successfully teach.

Previous Teacher Diaries

Be sure to see Education World's previous teacher diary features, The First 180 Days: First-Year Teacher Diaries and A First-Year Teacher and Her Mentor.

Article by Gail Beyrer
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03/11/2003