[Full Disclosure: Aronson participated in this program as an Urban Education Fellow.]
Winter break is a time for students to distance themselves from school. How ironic is it that some would choose to spend their respective winter breaks involved in precisely the one institution in which they aren’t expected to partake— school? For some enthusiastic Vassar students, the answer is just “not ironic enough.”
For a few frosty January weeks, they were placed by Education Professor Maria Hantzopoulos in schools throughout New York City, Boston and Philadelphia as Urban Education Fellows. Students observed the classrooms, assisted their mentor teachers and schools broadly and reflected on their experiences. These reflections occurred with educators, non-educators and other fellows from Vassar, Smith College, Hampshire College and University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Some fellows focused on where the metaphorical rubber of abstract educational theory met the concrete road of the classroom. Junior Olivia Keane commented over email, “You might see a teacher use a method you learned about in class, or think about whether the curriculum is constructivist [knowledge is co-constructed between the teachers and students], but all of this is happening in the context of a high energy and often chaotic classroom. You might find that your approach to teaching changes when the ‘students’ are real children in front of you instead of just an idea.”
On the topic of chaotic classrooms, first-year Daniel Perez explained over an afternoon meal in the Gordon Commons, “[You learn and] pay attention to all this theory, like Freire’s pedagogy and gender equality in the classroom, right? A lot of the time you get so lost in hands-on teaching that a lot of that goes out the window. In the moment of you helping a student, there’s not time to reflect on how to best accommodate all those best practices of those theories.”
This is not to say that the fellows failed to find success amid the chaos. In the brief time the fellows had in their respective classrooms, they still managed to forge close connections with their elementary and middle school students. Keane described a particularly heartfelt exchange: “One student wrote in his goodbye letter that he didn’t want me to go because he felt like he could talk to me, and I wouldn’t judge him for needing help. I was happy to hear that our conversations had made him feel supported and that my words can make a difference.”
Describing a similar experience in her email, Grace Han ’21 remarked, “[My most memorable experience] has to be the collective time that I spent working with a student who is both dyslexic and dysgraphic… The abstract rewards that I think of when working with children became tangible to me when I was able to celebrate the small victories in the student’s ability to expand his vocabulary and to move up a reading level.”
Victories did not come without challenges. In a remedial math class, Perez quickly realized that he had to choose his battles wisely: “I mainly focused on the kids…who expressed their own motivation to do better. I feel like I was able to help a lot more than the students who, even if I sat with them, wouldn’t even pick up their pencil or look at me like they were listening to what I was saying. But we don’t know exactly what’s sort of issues they are dealing with.”
Han appreciated the difficulty of teaching, reflecting, “I learned that teaching in the classroom isn’t really for me. This Fellowship took me out of my naive mindset of thinking that the only thing required of teaching was a deep love for children … I learned that there is so much more to teaching beyond that fundamental passion, such as classroom management, the extra effort and attention required to attend to students with IEPs [Individualized Education Program], and even managing and working with the parents of students.” Finally, Han added, “[T]here are so many other ways to pursue my interest in the study of education and my love for children—perhaps even by becoming a literacy specialist.”
Both the successes and the difficulties of the fellowship created an eye-opening experience for these interviewees, who highly recommend it to Vassar students. Keane and Perez shared the sentiment that the fellowship fostered respect for the teaching profession, as well as reflection on how best to support teachers. Han expressed that her biggest obstacle in the fellowship—realizing that teaching was not for her—was also her biggest lesson. The fellowship exemplified the maxim that, cliche as it is, those who learn the most in the classroom are not the students, but the teachers.