SCHENECTADY -- Speaking to new teachers, city school district Superintendent Larry Spring on Monday outlined an ambitious mission: Ensure race, economics and disability don’t serve as predictors of student success.
“That’s why I’ve brought you here,” Spring told more than 100 new and second-year teachers at the district’s annual new staff orientation. He told them they were selected because of their willingness to step back and challenge their assumptions and biases, adding that he thinks many of them may share with him a “social justice gene” that drives them to be advocates and activists.
He warned the teachers that Schenectady schools face the difficult challenge of teaching students in poverty. Understanding the degree of poverty facing Schenectady and it’s schools isn’t easy, he said.
“It can be startling; it can be difficult to wrap your head around,” Spring said, noting the many teachers who grew up in different communities. “Some of you are coming from places that are very different… many of you are coming to us from another place.”
Regardless of where the new teachers hail from, Spring said they will be expected to check the assumptions and biases they grew up with and consider student behavior from a different perspective. Many students in Schenectady will come to school with a different set of cultural norms and expectations than their teachers, and it is up to educators to work through those difference to reach each students. Spring said many of the students come from backgrounds of systemic oppression and racial disparities.
The work isn’t easy, Spring said, and it requires a commitment that goes beyond the neutrality of a basic lesson.
“It’s important we recognize in places like Schenectady if you want to be neutral, if you want to go with the status quo, you are actually reinforcing a system that has been highly discriminatory and oppressive to some of our children,” he said. “You don’t get to work here and not be an advocate and not be an activist.”
He told the new teachers part of their job is to “mitigate and undo the harmful things society has done to so many of our kids.” He told them to take personal responsibility for the achievement of each of the students in their classrooms and to think deeply about how their students experience school differently from one another.
The new teachers, who met at Key Hall in Proctors before heading off on a bus tour of Schenectady, started a three-day orientation Monday. The rest of district staffers return to work next week, with students starting school on Sept. 6.
Among the new teachers were former Schenectady students who returned to teach in their home district, other Capital Region natives from Latham and Scotia, and at least one new teacher who relocated from Michigan.
Fresh out of graduate programs or different teaching jobs, new staff members said they looked forward to getting into their rooms and starting with students next week.
Sydney Lussier, who grew up in Schenectady, said she has dreamed of returning to teach in the district since she was 12, when an art teacher pushed her to see the beauty all around her.
“It wasn’t until a middle school art teacher that I saw what art can do for someone,” said Lussier, a 2012 Schenectady High School graduate, when asked how long she has wanted to teach. “She made me realize art isn’t scary; it’s an amazing thing.”
Next week, Lussier starts as an art teacher at Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy and at Washington Irving.
The new teachers, many of whom are just days away from their first day in charge of their own classroom, said they were ready and excited to meet their students.
“If I can make a difference in one kid’s life, I think I’ll be happy,” said Pietrina Orza, who recently finished her studies at Manhatanville College and will teach math at Schenectady High School this year. “But more is better.”