I’m pleased to introduce Karen, a music teacher in Newark, NJ. When she’s not spelunking in her school’s basement for instruments or orchestrating student productions, she’s playing the harp and hosting Edith Wharton book club meetings.
Type of School: public K-8 school; 100% of students are eligible for free lunch
Years taught: 3
Number of students this year: 550 (and she knows all their names!)
Last week, you staged a production of “The Wizard of Oz” with your kids. How did it go?
I thought it was a complete success — the kids really performed well and had a sense of pride about their work. This year, we had an evening performance just for parents and family members, and the audience that night was packed. My favorite moment was when the boy playing the Scarecrow spotted his family right before “If I Only Had a Brain.” You could tell how excited he was to sing and perform for them.
There’d never been a play before at my school. Adapting two hours of material into 45 minutes turned out to be the easy part. What I hadn’t anticipated were things like the treachery of the Munchkin sequence, and needing to remind the kids not to turn their backs to the audience over and over again. It was totally worth it, though, and I would do it again. I’m thinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella next.
What’s it like to teach in Newark, a city that is such a poster-child for failing schools that Mark Zuckerberg has pledged millions of dollars to rescue it? And, how do you feel about being “another” white teacher in a predominantly black school district? Did you have to fight resentment or suspicion from your students?
Some of the stereotypes about teaching in Newark are true, and some I haven’t experienced. The poverty is very real. Coming from an upper-middle class background myself, it was very different and surprising to see children who don’t get the same access to their parents and level of support from them that I had from mine. I grew up in an area where children were indulged. The children I teach worry about things I never worried about. Many students eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the school.
On the other hand, I have seen a lot of kids who represent themselves as hard and street-smart, demonstrate tremendous potential. I think the idea that teenagers in this kind of setting grow up faster, and aren’t children, is untrue. If you give them instruments and scripts, they very much want to play. They like to use their imaginations and want to have fun.
A lot of people thought I would quit after the first year. People could tell it was a different environment than I was used to, including large class sizes and very difficult classroom management situations. When I came back the next year, I noticed a lot more openness from my co-workers and students. Because my students know I care about them, that has changed how they respond to me.
As far as donations, they could make a difference if the money were used to address the needs of the community as a whole — I wish it could be used to help parents with resources to take care of their kids. You can get every kid a laptop, but if their parents aren’t home, then the money won’t have much impact.
Why did you become a teacher?
I always loved being a student — particularly the beginning of the year, and the excitement of new notebooks. In college, I was a music major, but by the time I finished my senior year, I realized I didn’t want to be a performer as my sole source of income. I also liked the idea of serving a community.
I was torn between music and history as well — those were always my favorite classes. In the end, I could picture myself as a music teacher, working with kids with instruments.
What do you most enjoy about your work?
I really like it when the students get excited about something I’ve taught them, and I love hearing about them pursuing it outside of class; that makes me feel like they’re really listening to me and it really matters. I’ve gotten a lot of kids interested in independent instrumental study, including one 8th-grade student doing very poorly who got a lot of negative attention from teachers, including myself. I taught her how to play the chords to “Someone Like You” by Adele on the piano and lent her a keyboard. She came back from winter break really excited; tried out for school play, and got a lead role. She also applied and got accepted into Arts High, a very competitive school. In total, seven of my students were accepted there this year.
What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?
That it’s always a fun party, and that I’m always sitting cross-legged with a guitar in a circle. I do do that, but there’s a lot more to it. Something I despise is when someone asks me what I do and when I tell them, they say, “That is so cute.” There are cute aspects of the job, but I would not call it “cute.” I think elementary school teachers, especially, experience this misunderstanding. Teaching kids can be a war zone.
What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?
I’ve had so many great teachers, but the one who influenced me most is Mr. Morris, my 5th- through 12th-grade orchestra teacher. During my first violin lesson he said, “You’re a natural at this.” I remember going home and showing my mom the one string I knew how to play and thinking I was the coolest. . I always felt really comfortable and confident playing in front of him, and am happy he was my teacher for so many years. Now, I tell kids they’re naturals at playing. I would tell Mr. Morris, thank you for getting me so excited about becoming a musician.
What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?
Teaching can be the best, but in a way you won’t expect. It’s not financially rewarding, but it can be very wonderful.