by: Abby Emerson
Before enrolling at TC, I came directly from my undergraduate degree program. I was simply looking for a program in New York City where I could earn my master’s degree in about one year and go on to being an elementary school teacher. In a time and place where everyone was looking at Teach for America and other alternative certification programs, I am glad I decided to take a more traditional route. I don’t believe the depth of teaching I was able to achieve could have been possible had I done an alternative certification program. I am grateful I wound up in the Elementary Inclusive Education program at TC because it established a strong foundation on what I fundamentally believe about teaching and learning. The program’s emphasis on activism and teaching as relationship-centered and social justice work has been invaluable to my students and me over the past ten years.
After I earned my degree from TC, I spent my first five years teaching general education classes in charter schools for predominantly fifth grade students. I had not planned to start teaching in charter schools, but when I graduated from the program, there was a hiring freeze, and working at charter schools was the only option. Afterwards, I happily switched into the public school system and have been teaching at PS 63 in Manhattan for the past four years in a fifth grade Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classroom. I’ve really enjoyed teaching upper elementary grades for the last ten years.
What I enjoy teaching the most is student-driven mathematics that focuses on solving real-world problems using their strategies. I’m also very motivated by teaching social studies and infusing social studies into work pertaining to reading and writing. It’s important that my work not just be culturally responsive, but actively anti-racist as well. I love that while each day there are new challenges, there is also repetition that happens year to year. When you are able to teach content over and over again, you can get better and better at it. The growth I feel I’ve made as a practitioner is only possible through many attempts and reflections.
The Elementary Inclusive Education program at TC was intended for people with little to no teaching experience to prepare to become classroom teachers, so it goes without saying that the program helped me in that way. One of the strengths of the program is the robust student teaching experience. I was fortunate enough to student teach in two really great classrooms with Kevin Won and Haydee Dohrn-Melendez. Seeing the way they approached teaching with such thoughtfulness and intentionality really set the stage for me in my future work. They both helped me see amazing possibilities in action and imagine even more possibilities for my future teaching. I found my experience at Teachers College to be intensive. The program I was in was very focused, and with the student teaching demand, there was little room for much else beyond student teaching and coursework. However, I chose to do the program in the accelerated fourteen months, which was exactly what I wanted.
My favorite part about completing the Elementary Inclusive Education program was the relationships I formed with professors and instructors, which have been vital to my classroom work in the last ten years. It has always been great to stay in touch and remain grounded in “where I came from”, if you will. It’s through those relationships that I have remained in contact with Teachers College, been able to host student teachers, and even take courses myself over the last few years. Coming back to take classes at Teachers College as a non-degree student over the last few years has definitely been one of the best professional development experiences I’ve had. My favorite course at Teachers College was “Core”, which was our core course accompanying student teaching. “Core” covered a variety of subjects, but it helped build the theoretical underpinnings I have stood on throughout my teaching career.
In terms of my future professional goals, it is bittersweet, but I am leaving the classroom. I am coming back to Teachers College to start an Ed.D. in Curriculum & Teaching this fall. I am interested in questions around identity work in teachers and what personal work is necessary in order to implement culturally responsive practice, and then, who knows! However, I will continue to draw upon my experience in the Elementary Inclusive Education Program because the program set a really strong foundation of what I believe about teaching. Of course, and thankfully, my mindset has grown and shifted, but there are some fundamentals from my experience that will still be at the forefront. As I transition from a practitioner to a practitioner and a researcher, the necessity of reflection and self-critique, strong relationships, and a socially-just mindset will certainly carry over in reaching my future professional goals.
To admitted or prospective students, I would give the following advice: when it comes to student teaching, take every opportunity you’re given to teach in your cooperating teacher’s classroom. Teaching is a tough job because you’re not good at it right away, and you can feel it. That can be painful, so getting as much teaching practice while student teaching is a good way to tackle that. For all new teachers, I would really try to internalize that students will not just listen to you because you are the adult in the classroom. Once you recognize that teaching and learning is fundamentally based on relationships, you will get so much farther.