Monday, Nov. 7, 2016
A typical day as a part-time Social Studies and Education M.A. student for Jennifer Flores begins at 5 a.m. in the morning at home in Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. She takes the train to the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) offices in midtown where she works as a Case Manager for at-risk youth. Her entire work day begins at 8 a.m. and is dedicated to delivering resources to students struggling in schools. They come to her office seeking advice on college applications, locating financial aid, and housing assistance, to name a few. After the last student has left, she packs up and leaves to make it on time to class at Teachers College. While waiting for the bus or the train, she catches up on her readings.
At Teachers College, her courses in Social Studies last until 9:00p.m., several nights a week. For Jennifer, her courses are a major resource, not only providing insight into contemporary research and practices, but skills she can use with her students at the NYCDOE. On the weekends, Jennifer retreats to the library where she takes time to study. Any time not accounted for is spent with her son.
Although Jennifer is not in the typical cohort model that full-time students take part in, she feels being a part-time student has not hindered her experience. “I bring along a different perspective because a lot of graduates are fresh out of undergrad. For me, along with my work experience, it adds value to the experience,” she says.
Now entering her third year of the program, Jennifer feels prepared to begin her teaching career. “It took me a little while,” she said. “I think that’s my best asset. I really thought about it. I worked in the alternative schools and programs district, and at that point I was sold on the idea that I needed to become a teacher.”
She was first drawn to working with underserved students when doing work-study in college. She worked with Upward Bound, an organization that assists first generation and low-income students with entrance to universities. It was this connection to students who shared similar backgrounds to her own -- Jennifer is of Puerto Rican descent -- that instigated her desire to create social change.
Now she works with students who do not meet the eligibility to attend standard New York City public schools. “I realized there was not much research or much of an avenue for that population of students, which is unfortunate, because over 3,500 students walk through our doors. There’s a lot that is done in terms of policy and progressive movements for this traditional student, but we have neglected this other student,” said Jennifer.
Although her work assists many young people each year, she wanted to create stronger relationships with young people that would have a deeper impact on their lives. Teaching, she says, will allow her to foster these relationships. Jennifer also notes the lack of diversity among teachers in schools, and felt by contributing her voice to the domain would help amend this disparity.
For her third and final year in the program, Jennifer will leave her full-time position to pursue student teaching for the first time. “I’ve always loved being involved in social action and social policy, so I thought Social Studies would definitely be an avenue that I’m able to bring those two worlds together,” she said of applying to the program. “There’s something about the mission of TC — Teaching for social action.”
Her expectations of TC were not always so rosy, however. “There was always this fear that it was an Ivy League. Am I going to be alone? I’m coming from a SUNY. All of my fears had been completely waved from my first class,” she said.
“I think I was a little fearful that maybe as a minority student our voices wouldn’t be heard. I think that’s definitely not the case. I think there’s a strong presence and a strong community of students of color,” she said.
Jennifer is admittedly adjusted to the program now and has gotten to know her fellow students and faculty. One professor in particular, Dr. Sandra Schmidt, Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education, has made an impact. “She’s inspiring to say the least,” says Jennifer. “She always gives critical feedback in a timely manner that’s really allowed me to navigate my own learning processes and helped me shape who I want to be as a teacher.”
Jennifer admitted to taking at least three courses with Dr. Schmidt throughout her time at TC, but remembers one course from her first semester in particular, Diversity in Social Studies Curriculum. The course incorporates issues like gender, race and immigration into the meaning of inclusive curriculums and classrooms to examine urban schooling and society. “I think that in practice, it seems like if you include all the things that we spoke about, it would create an ideal classroom or environment that I would aspire to have. I also think that the readings itself opened up for me the teacher identity that I would like to assume and I think that’s really important, especially for someone who is switching careers that might not know their true teacher identity,” said Jennifer.
She credits other classes, including a required year-long Social Inquiry course, for allowing real life application for her students. “When I’m working with students on a day-to-day basis, one of the main things that I find is that there’s a disconnect in students applying what is being taught in classrooms to their everyday life and I think the Social Inquiry class really set up that good foundation for a new teacher to go into the classroom and say, ‘I want there to be a healthy combination of student driven work and teacher directed teaching style.’”
Armed with her experience working with high school age students, a critical mindset, and soon, her advanced degree in teaching, Jennifer is excited to begin teaching immediately after graduation. Her long term goal, however, is to open up a school for a population of alternative students where she can continue her work for social change.
Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Office Assistant for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.