The room was full of educational leaders from across the city, there to learn more about how to bring technology into school buildings, classrooms, and into the hands of the students they served. The mission was a good one. In 2008 the majority of schools still had limping-along access to the internet with maybe a computer in every classroom though mostly it was the teacher’s computer. Some schools were experimenting with giving students laptops, but mostly schools had computer labs that served various purposes from filling a random period with technology to AP Computer Science. The Modern Information Age began in 1969 with the birth of ARPANET, and New York City schools have been running to catch up ever since.
What about the best educators in New York City, some of the finest educators in the country, the most credentialed workforce, vetted, highly educated, and dedicated to serving in schools that don’t have caps on classrooms at 20, with parking spots or in-school vending machines that work?
I sat in this room with leadership, probably the only classroom teacher in attendance, and listened as a vision was revealed that was both daunting and disturbing to me. According to one of the speakers, New York City DOE was going to reach out to the best minds in education from across the country to solve our problems. Some of those best minds had come to speak and share their expertise. A superintendent from Arizona explained his solution, which included taking funding for textbooks and putting it all into purchasing laptops for every student. It was an amazing success and saved his district untold thousands of dollars.
Before I was a teacher, I was a journalist. My life plan had been to work as a journalist until my kids were school age and then become a teacher. It worked out pretty much the way I had planned and everything I ever learned as a journalist, from how to develop complex questions to teaching myself HTML, I knew would be helpful as a teacher.
Part of being a journalist is identifying information that isn’t being shared, that’s where the story usually begins. I raised my hand to ask, “How many schools are in your district?” The answer was three elementary and one middle/high school. The follow-up question, “And how many students does this program serve?” The answer was 500.
Ten years later, I am in a leadership role at the Manhattan Field Support Center. What I suspected then I know for certain now: A school district of four schools with a technology program that serves 500 students has its own set of obstacles and issues, but they do not mirror anything in a New York City school district.
The meeting continued with other speakers touting an online curriculum or a technology cure-all. None of them rang true to my experience in the classroom. I taught in a middle school in Rego Park, Queens. Our school had around 1400 students in grades 6 to 9, from around the world, speaking over 46 different languages with a large population of Russian speakers. One class I taught had 12 distinct home languages. There was no discussion of how technology could help students acquire language, no cure all for students in temporary housing, no answer to management of networks that were slowed down to a crawl when it rained.
The host of the event came back to the podium, pleased with all the presentations, a plethora of technology goodies that in some classes would work, in some schools would fail. “The best educators from across the country to solve the problems our city faces…” he stated again, and once more I felt there was something missing in his narrative.
“What about the best educators in New York City? Why not ask them for solutions to solve the problems they face?” I asked, I couldn’t help myself. I was a guest, I had no skin in the game really, just a teacher from Queens. But it disturbed me that the best educators from Arizona couldn’t begin to even grasp the intricacies of the best class in my school.
In ten years, that question has been asked by more and more people. What about the best educators in New York City, some of the finest educators in the country, the most credentialed workforce, vetted, highly educated, and dedicated to serving in schools that don’t have caps on classrooms at 20, with parking spots or in-school vending machines that work?
Educators from Arizona, Portland, or Ithaca, all have their own set of challenges and demands. Some mirror New York City classrooms, some are as alien as a classroom in Mamaroneck where everyone speaks the same language and shares the same cultural heritage. Diversity has its own set of challenges and benefits, just as overcrowded, antiquated buildings no matter where you are have their benefits (?) and challenges.
Watching the development of opportunities for educators to be recognized, from the Big Apple Awards, to EDxEDNYC, to countless 4 All programs training the workforce to meet today’s demands, the DOE is bringing teacher voice to the table when looking for solutions, trusting that educators know how to reach their students and giving them tools to help them do that while also understanding that not every tool is right for every educator so we have to offer a variety of tools and approaches. In other words, differentiation in practice is as important as differentiation in instruction.
New York City teachers are among the best educators in the world. The pride we should feel in our teachers has been attacked by special interests with ulterior motives. But the fact remains, New York City teachers are among the best educators in the world, and they will find solutions to the problems in their classroom and, if given the opportunity, in our city.
Lori Stahl-Van Brackle is Manhattan Field Support Center's Instructional Technology Director and head of the MFSC Maker Educator Cohort. Before moving to the MFSC, Lori worked at JHS 157 in Rego Park as the Computer Talent teacher where she led her students through piloting the Software Engineering Program, taught Web design, movie making, game design, digital literacy, and more. Before becoming a teacher Lori was a journalist and web designer for magazines. She is an EDxEDNYC veteran presenter! Follow her on Twitter at @Loristava