SCHENECTADY -- Some of Schenectady’s new teachers already have the inside scoop on what students can expect as they begin the new year.
They know the teachers. They know the schools. And they know what the students are like -- they used to be among them.
While all of the district’s new teachers – about 80 in all – spent the past week touring the city, visiting schools and learning about the district's expectations, a handful are returning to the halls where they were once students, and where many of them were inspired to become teachers.
“I think we kind of have a one-up on [other new teachers],” said Kim Minear, one of about six Schenectady High School graduates who will begin teaching in the district this year.
District officials in the past have cited the value of hiring teachers and staff who are connected to, and invested in, the city.
“Not only is this our classroom, our classroom community, but it’s our community as a whole,” said Andrea Shaver, who graduated in 2012 and will teach at Central Park Middle School.
The Schenectady grads-turned-teachers said they hope their presence will serve as a model for students who may follow in their footsteps.
“She’s from Schenectady; she came back to teach. Maybe I’ll do that,” Shaver said.
Minear, a 2005 graduate, is returning to the district as a middle-school intervention specialist. She will focus on certain students in need of extra help and working alongside other teachers. She worked as a reading specialist in Troy for four years and taught kindergarten in Amsterdam for a year. She got her teaching start in Schenectady as a student teacher and long-term substitute.
“I always said I was going to be in a place that needed me, and I feel that way here,” Minear said. “The teachers I had here helped me discover what I was capable of.”
Minear said she struggled with math and science while in high school – stuck in a “mindset that I’m not good at math, I’m not good at science” -- but some of her teachers helped her rethink her approach to the subject. She said they made her see how math and science would help her in daily life and showed their own passion for the subjects. That’s now her job for Central Park seventh-graders.
“Just because it’s a struggle does not mean you are not capable,” she said. "It gives you a source of credibility with your students. It’s one thing to say you understand … it’s another thing when you live three blocks away.”
Shaver joined the district as a sixth-grade math teacher at Central Park Middle School about halfway through last school year, teaching in the school where she learned sixth-grade math, working alongside her sixth-grade math teacher.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” Shaver said of returning to teach in Schenectady. “I couldn’t really picture myself elsewhere.”
Shaver was born and raised in Schenectady, attending Woodlawn and Central Park schools before graduating from the high school in 2012. She earned her undergraduate degree at SUNY Cortland and master’s degree from UAlbany.
“It was a little nostalgic seeing some of the same teachers I had when I was there,” she said of walking back through the front doors of Central Park, this time as a teacher. “I think it was weirder for them to see me as a colleague.”
Shaver said she was excited to start this year from the first day of school.
“Starting at the beginning of the year will make it that much more real -- building relationships with students from the get go,” Shaver said.
Syndey Lussier, also a 2012 graduate, will be an art teacher at Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy and Washington Irving school. She said that, when she was 12, a middle-school art teacher inspired her to connect with art and the beauty it adds to the world. Ever since, she has wanted to be a teacher in Schenectady schools.
“That was always the end goal,” Lussier said of coming back to Schenectady. “This is home.”
She said art is a good outlet for students who find it difficult to express themselves in writing or by speaking.
“I, for one, have never been good with words,” she said. “Art is a way to express yourself in a different form ... I love seeing how much pride they have in what they create.”
Oriana Miles, who graduated from the high school in 2013 and earned education degrees at New York University, will be teaching 10th-grade English at her alma mater this year. As a Schenectady alumn, Miles said she knows the important role the school district plays in bridging divides across the myriad diverse neighborhoods in the city.
“Schenectady can be very divided by different communities [within the city],” Miles said. “Being from Schenectady, you see more than that. You see individual students coming from these different places and coming together and forming friendships with people all across town.”
As a person of color, Miles said, she can connect with many Schenectady students on another level. She said she remembers times when she felt marginalized.
“I know what its like. You can feel like you don’t have a voice,” Miles said.
As she leads her first classroom this year, Miles will teach using a new lineup of books – part of a revamped sophomore reading list that focuses on books with more diverse characters.
“It’s so empowering to see a black girl being believed,” she said of books with lead characters of color. “It feels good.”
The new teachers agreed it's awkward running into former teachers and resisting the urge to drop a “Mrs.” or “Mr.” as they address new colleagues. Working at the high school, Miles is likely to run into more former teachers than other new teachers.
“I go out of my way not to call them by their first name,” Miles said. “‘Hello… How are you today?’”