Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017
Iolani Reed, an MA candidate in the English Education program, has always used English as a light to guide her out of some of her darkest hours. As an English teacher, Iolani hopes to bring the arts to young people to help them find their way out of challenging situations.
“I want to teach English to provide adolescents with an escape from the harsh realities they often face,” wrote Iolani in an e-mail. “It is a subject that shows protagonists with similar stories, proving to the reader that they are not alone in experiencing the twists and turns of life, while inviting students to learn from characters with stories unlike their own.”
As a person who has always gravitated toward creative fields, Iolani also sees English as a way to connect with her students through the power of language, to her, a tool more powerful and transformative than physical might.
Growing up, Iolani was surrounded by a supportive community of grandparents and godparents in the South Bronx, but she credits her mother, a first class military Sergeant-turned-teacher, with cultivating her love of the arts and nurturing her creativity. “She made sure I was loved,” said Iolani.
“Where we grew up, my mom was adamant about me not being on the corners of the streets and getting in trouble, so she kept me very active, and one of the programs was the City Lights Youth Theatre.” Iolani performed in and wrote scripts for the summer intensives beginning at the age of ten, where her first production was a science fiction play called, “Sci-Files”, about a human-eating couch.
In conjunction with improving her writing skills, these programs allowed Iolani to discover new areas of her own identity as a black female in New York City. “We learn more about the colonial society and less about our own histories. We’re still missing something by the time we graduate from school because we don’t know our cultures,” she said. By the time Iolani was 19-years-old, she had written a play about slavery, based on a trip she and her peers took to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. “All of those experiences really played a part in my love for literature and writing,” said Iolani.
While Iolani excelled in English, her motivation to look after others began in childhood. “When I was ten-years-old, I drew this [enormous] school as big as a shopping mall,” she remembered. Her mother asked her how such a big school would function. Iolani replied, “If you have everything located on campus, the parents can do everything there and be part of the school.” It seemed like a simple enough idea, but her focus on education guided her.
From a young age, Iolani watched her mother teach and saw students from difficult backgrounds confide in her. Upon graduating from City College of New York, Iolani began teaching in an after school program, while remembering her mother’s kindness. She took time to give guidance to students who were bullied or struggling academically, including a young girl in pre-kindergarten. Iolani tutored her for one month until the student was able to write her own name. “That’s when I realized education is more than about books. It’s really about the whole person,” she said.
Iolani accepted a position as a teacher’s assistant in Yonkers, in a predominantly Irish community, where she was the only faculty of color. “It was interesting to see race in a different way. I had never experienced racial anything before – feeling black for the first time. But I embraced it,” she said with a smile.
Iolani learned quickly and was soon asked to be the 8th grade teacher for the school. “It was very challenging,” she said. The hectic schedule of teaching Gym for all grades along with a wide range of subjects from Social Studies to Science left her with anxiety and in an unhealthy mental and physical state.
She felt she lacked professional development needed to teach in more challenging positions, and made up her mind to apply to Teachers College, a school she discovered at a graduate school fair. When she met with faculty from the English Program, she remembers feeling accepted. “It just felt warm, and the teachers spoke to you as if you were people,” she said.
At orientation and in her classes, English faculty members encouraged whole child development, teacher health and critical thinking. “[That’s] what made me feel I was in the right place,” said Iolani.
Iolani recalled two classes with Dr. Monique Lane, a former Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellow during the first summer session. Iolani was particularly taken with Dr. Lane’s class on race and gender. For their final project, Iolani completed an autoethnography, a reflection on and exploration of her personal experience as it connected to wider societal issues through writing. Iolani chose to write hers about implementing principles and community into the classroom. Her autoethnography included the Ndugu Nzinga African Rites of Passage, a program that promotes African traditions and culture to build character and healthy communities. “Through healing, spirituality, wisdom, humility and nurturing, we transform ourselves and nurture ourselves first. If we treat schools as a community, it would really change the system overall,” said Iolani on what the group has meant to her.
While Iolani’s first student teaching placement in the South Bronx taught her about classroom management and how to deal with struggling students, her second placement at James Baldwin High School in Manhattan seemed to hit home. “I love the fact that they check in with their students. I’ve never seen that before.” Iolani noticed that faculty and staff, aware their students come from challenging backgrounds and many have social emotional disorders, create a space for understanding and caring for the whole student.
“TC's boldness and constant search of what the issues are in addition to creating ways of tackling the issues that prevent every child from getting a sound education is what made me even more happy to be here,” she said.
Iolani is on track to graduate in May 2017. On her time at Teachers College so far, she says she has learned she can ask for help, and now she understands the more practical principles of creating a lesson plan and structuring her classroom to provide a foundation for her students, while also leaving room for flexibility.
As well as feeling better equipped to take on the challenges of the classroom, Iolani says she is inspired by people at TC who encourage education that addresses the whole student. “I should be able to know my kids as individuals,” she said, before adding, “They reminded us that in order to teach a class, we must first remember what it is to be the student.”
Iolani’s motivation to educate younger generations, especially struggling young students and students of color, runs deep. As she reflected on teaching, she took a positive stance on the possibilities of education, saying, “I still feel like to this day, if all hands are doing the dirty work, all children will have a chance to succeed.”
Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Social Media Coordinator for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.