Terry Taylor found herself in a tenuous situation at the start of the pandemic: she had recently suffered a personal injury and her job as a tutor at Washington Irving was suspended amid hundreds of school district layoffs.
Taylor, who grew up in Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood, started working as a paraprofessional at Schenectady High School in 2004, and after three years at the high school, she went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree. In 2013, she returned to the district and worked as a tutor at Washington Irving, the district’s alternative school, which offers tutoring to students serving out suspensions. She did that up until the pandemic, when the job was cut.
Then she got a note from Patrick Jean-Pierre, the district director of equity, diversity and inclusion in Schenectady city schools. Jean-Pierre was looking to drum up interest in a new program aimed at converting Schenectady students and support staff into Schenectady teachers. Promising free or reduced tuition, a network of support and a job at the end, Jean-Pierre asked district paraprofessionals, tutors and other staff if they would be interested in pursuing a master’s degree in teaching at Clarkson University and help pioneer a new pathway Jean-Pierre and other district leaders hope many others will follow.
For Taylor, the opportunity was like manna from heaven.
“That paper came across my desk that I could go back to school and a light went off,” Taylor said in a recent interview. “Hey, you’ve been saved.”
Taylor already felt like she had long been doing the work of a teacher, supporting the school’s struggling students closely and interacting with parents whom she related to personally. She too had a daughter shunned to the district’s fringes.
“I got kind of stuck,” Taylor said. “I got stuck doing teacher work and not being recognized financially as a teacher… I didn’t know what they were doing that was so much more special than what I was doing.”
Jacqueline Tyo, another Schenectady native, already was a teacher. She earned a teaching degree from UMass-Amherst and taught special education in Massachusetts for nearly a decade. She moved back to Schenectady in 2010, but after years of attempting to get her Massachusetts teacher certification recognized by New York state, she has yet to earn the approval to teach in her hometown – or any in the state.
She worked as a tutor at Washington Irving starting in 2017 – “part of the job is also motivating them, influencing them to push themselves to be better,” she said – earning less than $25 an hour with no benefits. Her job was also suspended amid the September layoffs, she said.
Tyo received the flyer calling on staff to “level up” in their career, as she put it. She said Jean-Pierre encouraged her to go back, with the district’s support, to get that New York certification after all.
“He said: ‘I see you as a leader in our community, so why not?’” she recalled. “So I said ok, I will do it. I will basically do it for the students.”
Noting the stark demographic makeup of students and faculty in the district – where over 30 percent of the students were Black and less than 3 percent of the teachers were Black, as of 2017 – Tyo said she felt like her skills and background were underappreciated.
“It makes me think I am actually teaching in a district and my own school district isn’t utilizing all of what I have,” Tyo said. “It’s inequitable, that’s what makes me know I needed to get into this program, our students deserve to be taught, it’s not the color or race that’s important, but I think it would be very valuable for a student to see that it’s possible for them to teach people who look like them.”
‘All the links’
Schenectady’s “Grow Your Own” program has been in the works for years but gained new momentum this year, despite a pandemic. The district is in the process of finalizing a memorandum of understanding with SUNY Schenectady, Clarkson University and Cazenovia College, which recently opened a satellite campus in Schenectady to offer bachelor’s degrees in education. The document formalizes a pathway to careers in education that starts in elementary and middle school classrooms in the districts and winds its way through the hallways of SUNY Schenectady and Clarkson before ending back in those same Schenectady classrooms.
“The goal is for them to ultimately return to the Schenectady City School District and put all that education to work for us,” said Jean-Pierre, who has led the establishment of the program. “You live in Schenectady. You get your education in Schenectady. And you also work here.”
The pathway starts with future-teachers school clubs at the elementary, middle and high school levels, giving students a chance to learn about careers in education, hear from speakers, visit colleges and work with a mentor teacher in their building. In ninth grade, the students can join the Smart Scholars program at SUNY Schenectady, a program that enables students to earn SUNY Schenectady credits while taking college-level courses at the high school. A transition agreement between SUNY Schenectady and Cazenovia College, for the purposes of an education degree, enables the students to move from SUNY Schenectady into their bachelor’s degree program at an expedited path. After Cazenovia, the students can gain access to the Clarkson master’s of teaching program based in Schenectady – where they can finish out their degree and teacher certification.
“Now, we have all the links in that teacher education pathway, right in downtown Schenectady,” said Catherine Snyder, who leads the Clarkson education program. “They can go from their associate to master’s degree without ever leaving the City of Schenectady.”
Snyder said Clarkson has committed to ensuring students in the new program pay no more than half of the cost of attendance, highlighting new initiatives to support students of color financially as well as socially and emotionally.
The district’s Grow Your Own program includes a separate pathway for adult staff, like the paraprofessionals who are far more reflective of the broader community than district teachers, to earn the teaching degrees and certifications necessary to lead classrooms.
“You would think there would be a very clear career ladder, but there hasn’t been,” Snyder said, highlighting long-festering educator shortages and a surge in retirements that will strain the teacher workforce in the coming years. “The teacher shortages are not going away. We need to start paying attention to these other education professionals in our buildings that are interested in making the leap.”
Jean-Pierre said he hopes to expand the program to include pathways for students interested in counseling and social work, school nursing and potentially vocational fields like maintenance and electrical work. He said they also hope to expand the number of colleges that participate in the program, opening a greater variety of options for interested students.
“Those conversations are in the works, and the hope is to create as many pathways as we can, so we don’t leave any student behind,” he said.
Starting in sixth grade
As Taylor and Tyo work on their teaching degrees from Clarkson, Schenectady sixth graders are setting out on their own journeys to become teachers. The district this year established “Educators of Tomorrow” clubs at the three middle schools, the high school and are piloting an elementary-level future-teachers club at Paige Elementary School.
Yacouba Sangare, a math and science teacher who leads the Oneida Middle School future-teachers club, noted his status as the lone Black teacher in the sixth grade and the importance of representation in helping students realize their full potential.
“I’m the only Black classroom teacher out of 10 classes, we have a student population that is about 45 percent Black and brown students,” Sangare said. “They are great teachers, but representation is really key to enhance what we want.”
The club has met both virtually and in-person throughout the year, welcoming different speakers, including a mix of teachers, to answer questions from the students. The students during a recent meeting reflected on their interest in the program, recognizing the value in the financial incentives on the table.
“I really like how this club provides the scholarships to go to college for free and come out of college with an education and no debt,” said sixth-grader Liza Mullin, who also recently presented to the school board about the program.
Liza said she also thinks it’s important to help make a more diverse teacher workforce.
“I kind of want to see that,” Liza said. “Not just with more Black teachers, more Hispanic teachers, more Asian teachers, more of all of that.”
Sixth-grader Jaislyn Loppe said she has always liked teaching kids younger than her and thought becoming a teacher would be a good path to follow.
“What made me want to be a teacher was the fact I would be able to have fun with kids,” Jaislyn said, recalling times she would play the ABCs or other learning games with kids she babysat. “I’ve always loved kids since I was younger, I always wanted to be a teacher.”
Alijah Littman said he wanted a little more respect than what is offered to kids.
“I really wanted to be respected more as a person than respected and looked upon as a kid, so I had that dream of being a teacher in the back of my head the whole time,” sixth-grader Alijah Littman said.
The students, some of whom noted the lack of teachers of color in their schools, said they agreed that it would benefit them and their classmates if there were more diverse teachers.
“More people of color so people who are one race won’t feel out of place,” sixth-grader Vaalini Manru said. “I would also do it because I’m Guyanese and there’s a lot of students that are like me, so I would like to connect to them.”
Some of the students liked the idea of returning to teach in the district so much they thought maybe they would just step in for Mr. Sangare.
“Yeah, maybe I think it would be cool to take over your own teacher’s job,” sixth-grader Charles Grant said.
“I may need to start working on my job,” Sangare joked.
“I’m gonna take Mr. Sangare’s office and be the new him,” Alijah said.
‘Got big roots here’
Taylor, Tyo and the current students would also bring deep Schenectady ties with them to future Schenectady classrooms.
Tyo, who also serves as a clergywoman in Schenectady working under her nonprofit, Train Up a Child Society, offered literacy lessons to pre-kindergarten-aged kids during the pandemic after the district delayed the start of its own pre-k program. She also tutored adult English language learners studying for the citizenship test at the local library. She plans to get her new degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) and will be able to work with English language learners throughout the district.
“Growing where you are planted, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. There are so many phenomenal, excellent educators in the Schenectady City School District and they care” she said. “Most of us are lifetime learners, because we want to be better for our students because they deserve it, and I’m worth being the best I can be. That’s why I’m back in school.”
Taylor for years has run a salon business in Schenectady, employing Schenectady students over the years. She has five kids of her own and has helped raise 16 kids total with her husband. Her ties in the community run deep, she said, and would serve the students as a teacher.
“I’m born and raised in Schenectady, I’ve got big roots here,” Taylor said. “At the end of the day, I really want to succeed for myself, my family and my community.”
Pursuing a degree in business education, Taylor said she wants to use business and entrepreneurship to teach students how to empower themselves to succeed in life.
“As a teacher and them seeing me, they are like, ‘Hey, you own a business Mrs. Taylor,’” she said. “I’m an entrepreneur and that’s what I want them to see in themselves. You are an entrepreneur in yourself. You can do so many things that can pay your own way in life, that will take care of you. I want them to embark on their journey of self-employment and self-worth.”
Taylor said she long thought she didn’t have what it takes to be a teacher, conditioned by decades inside of education systems that don’t benefit Black students as much as white students.
“Most people of color feel they don’t get what it takes to be a teacher, they do not see many Black teachers,” Taylor said. The Black teachers I did see I always felt they were smarter than me, until I started working with them. They are smart, I’m smart too.”