When Adriana Garcia decided to become a teacher, she liked the idea of learning the craft by doing it.
So when she heard about a new teacher residency program at New York University based on the medical model where doctors-in-training begin practicing medicine under supervision of an experienced mentor, she jumped at the chance. Part of a growing push for teacher-residency programs across the country, the program allows student-teachers to spend a year in the classroom under close supervision while earning a master’s degree.
Unlike conventional preparation programs that are sometimes knocked for being heavy on theory but light on practical skills — or alternative programs, like Teach for America, where participants get a weeks-long crash course before being plunged into the classroom — Garcia was drawn to the idea of a residency. It would allow her gradually take on more responsibilities in the classroom under the watchful eye of a mentor, so that when she eventually stepped into a bigger role, “it wouldn’t come as a shock to anyone — either for me or for the kids,” she said.
Now, after a yearlong residency at Great Oaks Charter School on the Lower East Side and intensive online coursework, Garcia teaches economics and U.S. history at Lower East Side Preparatory High School, an alternative district school for students who struggled in traditional schools.
In this installment of “How I Teach,” Garcia shares her thoughts on the residency program, her attraction to an alternative high school, and how she juggles teaching in three different languages.
What attracted you to the teacher residency program at NYU as opposed to a more traditional teacher prep program or an alternative route into the classroom like Teach for America?
The gradual nature of the program was very important: I wanted to enter the classroom in the most responsible way I could since any mistakes I made would impact the education of young people in a high-need area. Alternative routes generally do not offer you that, and student teaching through a traditional teacher prep program tend to be semesterly and do not allow for the continuity with students that a yearlong residency does.
What drew you to your current school and do you feel that the residency prepared you for the job?
I was initially attracted to the school because a majority of its students are English Language Learners. The languages I speak and the cultures I am familiar with allow me to work well with students from Spanish-speaking countries and China, and my school has large populations of both. [Garcia studied Japanese and Chinese in college, speaks fluent Spanish, and once taught in a Japanese fishing village.]
When I walked into the school, I noted the trilingual posters in the hallways and many different languages floating through the hallways; conversations with teachers and leadership confirmed that this was a place where all were welcomed and supported.
What I really appreciate about my residency now is that although at times readings and materials seemed overwhelming, I actually have a lot of tools to reference when I’m working through challenges in my classroom.
My classes were never, “This is what your assessments should look like,” but rather, “Here are general guidelines for what makes assessments authentic for you and for students, here are some examples, now create your own for your students, and share them with the class for feedback.” When working with students who have very low literacy in their home language, or have anxiety about speaking in front of others, I go back to my notes about assessments and find ways to give every student opportunities to show me what they know and how they have grown.
What are the biggest challenges you’re working through during your first year of full-time teaching?
I was initially concerned about building relationships with students and managing my classroom since I’m pretty young and am frequently mistaken for a student, but I have found it to be one of the most fun parts of my role. Something I found challenging in a middle school was classroom management, and I wondered how it would work in a situation where my kids are only a few years younger than me.
The nature of transfer schools is that students are dealing with a host of situations that are often out of their control and impact their ability to be physically and mentally present. My goals are to have my students feel safe and loved, learn the content, pass my class, and graduate feeling ready for their next steps.
So my guidelines that were more suitable for middle schoolers had to relax: I let my students eat in class because I firmly believe that I would rather have them eating and learning inside my classroom than going outside to buy food and missing out on our lesson. I don’t take away a student’s cell phone in class because I trust them to manage their possessions and show respect for me and their peers; a simple reminder of what we should be working on or asking everyone to give the speaker 100 percent attention is generally enough to refocus.
You’re teaching classes in English, Spanish, and Chinese. What are your routines for preparing for those classes?
I plan in English first and then I translate. I have to look up and learn key vocabulary so that I can explain concepts and events in both languages. My classes are technically bilingual so I strive to balance the amount of English and home language that we use.
Sometimes the materials I want to use simply do not exist so I create my own. Primary sources I either translate myself, modify and add vocabulary support, or if it’s an especially famous document like the Constitution or Wilson’s 14 Points, I may be able to find a translated version online.
And then, during class, I have to be ready to laugh at myself when I do make mistakes. It’s actually been a wonderful opportunity to model for students how to correct yourself and not let a mistake ruin your flow.
You completed your residency at a charter school and now teach in a district school. Are there any big differences in the kind of teaching you’re expected to do?
Not really. I’m teaching different content and different students so my end goals are a bit different, but the standard for professionalism and good teaching is the same.
Last year, I was thinking more about exposing my students to history they may not have the opportunity to study again until college — like Stonewall [the 1969 riots at a Manhattan gay bar that helped launch the L.G.B.T.-rights movement]. But, right now, I’m focused on helping my students, almost all immigrants, see themselves in the history of this country that they now call home.
What’s the best teaching advice you’ve received?
During class last year my “content mentor” from NYU (Diana Turk) said something along the lines of: “Your students need to like you, otherwise they’re not going to want to learn from you.”
I’ve found it to be so true: Building relationships are the cornerstone of my teaching. My students trust and respect me, and they know that what we learn in class is for their benefit and their future success.
I’ve learned to be intentional about greeting every student when they come in, assuming the best, giving second chances, and being transparent about what I do and why. And when it’s a particularly difficult day and students want to give up on a challenging document, or when I go into work not feeling my best, that’s when the relationships we have built become extra important, and we are able to persevere.