Mo Ibrahim: My Third Year of Teaching

By the start of my third year of teaching, in 2007, half of my New York City Teaching Fellows cohort had quit teaching. Some for health reasons, some due to differences with their school’s administration, and some due to the difficulty of teaching during the day and going to graduate school at night. Teaching poor students, writing fifteen-page papers on pedagogy and compiling lesson plans proved to be too much.

The day before classes began that year, the principal told me that our students needed to earn an economics credit to fulfill graduation requirements. He asked if I wanted to teach the class. I hadn’t taken economics since freshman year of college, but I reluctantly agreed. The principal said he had an economics curriculum in his office and he would return shortly with the material. He didn’t return and never gave me the material. . However, I was able to develop a curriculum on the fly. I had read Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and watched Gopnik’s Lighting Up New York documentary. I got the idea to make a curriculum based on Gopnik’s four theories of New York City crime reduction: Broken Window, Abortion, Child Boom and Korean Immigration. To supplement my curriculum I read Freakonomics and Park’s The Korean American Dream. I didn’t have to teach math anymore, because I was teaching economics, but I was still teaching English. My class focused on reading poetry and short stories and writing short essays.

By that time I had earned my Master’s degree from the City College of New York, and had learned two principles that proved helpful. During an evening class, an African-American female professor, who insisted we call her Doctor, advised us to use the don’t ask, apologize principle to get around policies with school administrators. For example, instead of asking if I could take my English class to read poetry in Central Park, I should take them knowing that I could simply apologize if I were reprimanded by an administrator. She also told us about a research study done by Lisa Delpit, an education researcher, who advised teachers not use please with inner-city male students. According to her study, when students in that demographic hear the word please they feel they have a choice. For example, a teacher should say, “Go back to your seat,” instead of “Go back to your seat, please.” In my experience, she was right. The command without please worked better.

I can’t recall using any other teaching techniques that I was exposed to during graduate school. There should have been more instruction on how to motivate students to study and how to get parents to make their children do their homework. Talking to my students, I learned that, when they get home, most of my female students took naps and most of my male students played video games. Very few of them did any homework, read or studied.

I didn’t give any homework or quizzes in my English class, which had about 20 students, because most of my students didn’t do any schoolwork at home. I had my English students do all of their writing assignments during class time. I didn’t give any homework in the economics classes as well, which had about 30 students, but I had felt compelled to give quizzes to assess how well the students understood my lessons. I knew that the majority of my students weren’t going to study at home, but I hoped that I had explained the material well enough that they would be able to do well on quizzes. I initially did a quiz review the day before the quiz, but that didn’t seem to help the dismal passing rates. I tried doing the quiz review immediately before the quiz, but that didn’t help. I eventually moved to telling my students exactly what was going to be on the quiz, but surprisingly even that didn’t help. When students don’t understand a lesson or do well academically, teachers are supposed to take responsibility, but that’s very difficult to do when most of the students are very apathetic.

Mo Ibrahim: My First Semester

Mo Ibrahim, a friend of mine, teaches high school in New York with hard-to-teach students. He and I want to find out if my ideas about teaching can help him. His blog posts here are the story of that.

I moved to New York in the summer of 2004 to start the Teaching Fellows summer training program at City College of New York. My wife and kids stayed in Chicago until I could find an apartment.

I found an apartment through a Teaching Fellows message board. It was in a nice section of The Bronx, but I only had three months before I had to find another apartment. I spent the first two months taking Master’s degree classes at City College and studying for two teacher certification exams — a general exam that all aspiring teachers took and a specialized one for students who majored in special education. There was a lot of pressure to pass the exams, because if you failed you would be expelled from the program.

By the end of the summer, I had passed both exams, gotten a provisional certification to teach, and gotten a job teaching at a high school near Columbus Circle that served underprivileged students. Most of the students were poor and performed far below grade level in reading and math. But I didn’t have a place to live anymore, because my lease was up and the landlord refused to renew it. I applied for a number of apartments all over New York City, but all of my applications were denied. Once I called to make an appointment to visit an apartment and the owner asked me to come over immediately, but when he saw me he said the apartment was no longer available. On another occasion, I was told that the apartment was no longer available after I faxed over a copy of my driver’s license. I assumed all this was because I was black but an elderly Jewish lady said it was due to my Islamic name. So I moved into a hostel in the East Village. By September, I was teaching full time during the day and taking classes at City College at night. Due to the hostel’s two-week limit, I moved to a different hostel in Manhattan every two weeks.

A couple of things struck me when I starting teaching. One was the New York slang. I found myself frequently asking students to translate words and phrases they used. For example, “Yo, it’s mad brick in this class!” meant “It’s very cold in this class!” I was also struck by their apathy. Most of the students appeared to care little about completing class assignments, turning in homework, and studying for quizzes and exams. I would say, “Why didn’t you do your homework?” They would respond, “What’s the big deal? It’s just homework.” Their measure of success was “Did I pass?” Not all of them were like this, but most of them were.

The first subject I was assigned to teach was 11th and 12th grade math — the two grades were mixed in one class. I had diligently reviewed my high school and college math over the summer, so I was confident I knew the subject. I was assigned to co-teach this class with a veteran teacher. By then he’d been teaching at least fourteen years.

I had gone to a professional development workshop for co-teachers. It had taught seven different co-teaching methods. For example, one was “you teach one day, I teach the next day” or “you teach the first half, I teach the second half”. Different ways of sharing the teaching. In fact, not only did I not teach a single lesson, but I was relegated to the back of the classroom. My co-teacher was really nice otherwise, but he would not let me teach the class. I don’t really know why. When the students were allotted time to work on math problems I would rush to the special education students (students with a learning disability or who were emotionally disturbed, e.g., anger management problems) to give them one-on-one help, but they were usually resistant. They stared at me blankly, or asked off-topic questions like, “Did you see the Yankees game last night?”

Occasionally, students, including non-special education students, would ask me for help. But often in the middle of my explanation the whole-class discussion would resume, and I would have to stop teaching, because my co-teacher asked me not to talk to students while he was teaching. That was my role during my first semester of teaching. I wasn’t despondent, though, because I considered it a blessing in disguise. Since my co-teacher kept me from teaching, I didn’t have to prepare any lessons. He didn’t even allow me to grade any papers, which was a good thing since I was in night school and still living in hostels.

Things changed drastically after the first semester. A veteran English teacher took an emergency leave of absence and I was given her English classes. My math co-teacher asked that all the poor performing special education students be given their own class to be taught by me. A young and friendly English teacher lent me her English curriculum and I developed a modified math curriculum based on the class where I sat in the back. And I was finally able to leave the hostels. I moved into a shared apartment in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where Mike Tyson grew up. It took an hour and twenty minutes on the subway to get to work. During my first commute to work, I overheard someone say: “Did you know Brownsville’s the worst neighborhood in New York?” I hadn’t known that.

Mo Ibrahim: How I Became a Teacher

I met Mo Ibrahim, a high school teacher in New York, because of his Behind the Approval Matrix  blog, which I admired. I interviewed him about his I Got Uggs! blog. Recently he has become interested in finding out if my ideas about teaching can help him teach better. This is the first in a series of posts by him about that.

I went to college at Chicago State University, a commuter school in Chicago. I started in the late 1980s. I considered a career as a teacher when I was there, but changed my mind after I visited the education department and learned about the student teaching requirement, which seemed like a drag. Later I visited the premed office. Mostly I studied biology and graduated with a degree in Independent Studies. By graduation, I had been accepted at University of Illinois School of Medicine, in Chicago.

I started there in 1995. The summer before I enrolled, I had been verbally promised a whopping three scholarships. One was from my State Representative, the other two from a non-profit organization that helps African-Americans get into medical school.  I did get the scholarship from the State of Illinois, which covered my tuition. However, I never got the other scholarships, which meant that my living expenses weren’t covered. Between the time of the verbal promise and my enrollment, the organization had started a policy of only giving scholarships to students in the second and later years of medical school. Too many African-American students dropped out in the first year; the foundation reasoned it was wasting its money.

At the medical school’s financial aid office, I was informed that my only option was to take out a loan. This was something I had sworn I would never do. I’m Muslim; interest-based loans are against Islamic law. Despite being told that it was virtually impossible to be a medical student and work, I got a job during the graveyard shift at a seedy hotel on the North Side. I avoided drinking coffee to stay awake because I didn’t want to go to the bathroom and compete with the rats for a stall. Without coffee, I fell asleep. I was only there a week. A tenant who owed the hotel over $1,000 moved out while I was asleep. I was immediately fired. Three months later, I withdrew from medical school. I couldn’t afford it.

My first real job after medical school was in the medical records office at St. Francis Hospital. A co-worker was taking a computer repair class at a community center and suggested that I join him. I didn’t take the class, but I purchased a used computer, some computer repair books, and studied for the A+ Certified Computer Repair Technician exam. I passed the exam on the first attempt and got a job making five times what I was making at the hospital. I did computer repair and network engineering for five years. Unfortunately, the work seemed to be drying up. I started at $100/hour but after five years was making $9/hour. Toward the end of the five years, my wife and I took a vacation in New York City. In the subway, I noticed an advertisement for the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) Program. I liked the idea of being a teacher because of the job stability and the idea of giving back to the minority community. NYCTF automatically puts you in an “underprivileged” school. The deadline for applying to the program was quickly approaching and I filled in the online application as soon as I returned to Chicago.

I was invited back to New York for an interview. After I taught a sample lesson and did group and one-on-one interviews, I was accepted into the 2004 NYCTF program. That summer I enrolled in a Master’s degree program in in Education at the City College of New York. I also got a job teaching at an underprivileged high school near Columbus Circle. Ten years later, I am still trying to determine the best way to teach my students.