I am not shy about how my career as an educator has been accidental at best, and a trial by fire at worst. I had zero ambition to teach, despite what they say about ‘teaching being a true calling’. I had no formal training, and actually never thought I would be terribly cut out for the job.
But when you are a broke-ass graduate student struggling with self-worth issues*, ageism in your field**, and trying desperately to prove to everyone around you that you can, in fact, hold down a ‘real job’*** you will take what the universe throws you.
In my case that happened to be teaching Environmental Science (and eventually 4 other subjects) at a GED and ESL school in Chinatown. A friend of mine had been working there for a couple of years while getting her Master’s as well, and thought it would be a great way for me to work on my community development and facilitation skills (a large focus of my particular urban planning program). The school had just gone through a bit of a shakeup, and when I walked in the door I was handed a syllabus and a textbook. I will never ever forget the looks on the faces of my first students — all entirely older than me — and how I must have looked to them.
Frankly, I was scared shitless.
I wrestled for a long time with my role as an educator. I wasn’t qualified; I never ‘learned’ how to teach. I eventually discovered that even most education programs don’t give much on the ground practical advice for working in a classroom. After I graduated with my Masters in Urban Planning, the only work I could find was adjuncting. I continued, but often felt like I was a failure in the planning world — too young, and too bold for an employer to take a risk on but just right for city universities to squeeze hours and hours of unpaid labor from me just so I could continue to stay in New York and hold on to my own dreams of success.
Slowly but surely I found my feet in the classroom — I grounded myself in honesty. I was open with my students and, though friends warned me they might take advantage of me, many of my students seemed to view this transparency as a key part of my character. They grew to trust me — to trust that if I made some mistake I would be accountable for it, that I would do whatever I could to help them access the knowledge they showed up day-in and day-out to acquire.
We learned how to set boundaries and break down walls together, we practiced respect and dignity for everyone. My classrooms were often an extraordinary reflection of multicultural New York: recent immigrants from China, Bengladesh, Haiti, Ghana, Guyana, Ecuador, Mexico, and countless other nations far and wide; long time New Yorkers raised in ‘old school’ Brooklyn, Bronx, and Manhattan; and recent transplants from Southern States who moved to the city for new opportunities and fresh starts. Sometimes we didn’t know how to talk to one another- deeply rooted prejudices were present and sometimes stifling. I had to learn that if I wanted my classroom to be an effective place where my students felt safe to work through the lessons (education had often presented many hurdles and created great mistrust), I had to surface the things that made us uncomfortable.
This is where I started learning that the theories I had learned in Community Based Planning were absolutely and completely useful to my work as an instructor. Many meetings had disappointed me where I watched practitioners (sometimes my own mentors) completely blast through tenants of inclusivity, understanding, and transparency. In Community Based Planning, we are taught that community members are the experts, that they are the first group of people who understand the intimate workings of their neighborhoods. We are given tools for bringing different people (we call them stakeholders) to the table and helping them feel safe to talk, but so many meetings lacked diversity, so many moments to open up a room and surface an ‘ism’ that divides us were lost to time constraints, budget constraints, or bias (I promise you that some ‘ism’ sits just under the surface of every single community meeting). It is not that community planners are not thoughtful — they are. But it is easy to be thoughtful in your Planning Theory classroom, it can be very hard to be so deliberate out in the field.
Teaching did not give me that option. If I did not find a way to create a functional classroom, I would not have functioning students. The whole thing would fall apart. Some students would perform exceptionally, and many others would fall through the cracks. I would either need to fail them consistently, or inflate their grades. Neither of these things were options to me- because neither of them actually creates learning.
So I pulled out my “planners toolbox”. I sat people down and brought up the big shit. Often I did this by stopping lessons and saying “Okay. Its time for some real talk.” I drew a very hard line on insensitive language, and hate speech. I was unafraid to call my students out for their behavior but as a concerned part of our classroom community, not as an authority figure. I blew through boundaries of power and authority- I always hated teachers who were high-and-mighty anyway. What hurts my classroom hurts me too. So we would sit, and we would talk. Men and Women had to learn to listen, different cultures had to learn to listen, completely different religions and ideologies had to learn to listen. I had to learn to listen.
I would still attend community meetings in the planning world, and continued to see a lack of empathy, and an unwillingness to address the real issues in a crowd of people. I am afraid that planners are not learning how to listen.
So I implore anyone who ever wants to work in the planning or community development world, anyone who wants to be a politician or an organizer. Put your theory book down, and go pick up a classroom roster. Teaching changed my life- it taught my the value of my labor, it reinforced the value and worth of diversity even when cultures clash, and it taught me how to listen and see other human beings with dignity and compassion.
* Turns out that you are not your job.
** Turns out that there is only a small grain of truth there
*** Teaching really flipped this one on its head. When we value work based on the idea that some jobs are ‘meaningful’ and some jobs are ‘menial’ we completely ruin the idea of work as a productive aspect of our lives- enriching and fulfilling us. Yes, there is work that makes it hard to live and love your life. Part of the reason that system continues to exist is that we continue to assign greater or lesser value to particular kinds of work.