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Rising Stars: Putting the Edge in Special Education

By Ken Siegal

Graduating with a double major in artistic fields, Jenny left her Midwestern roots to experience the double duty of grad school and a full time job in New York City. Now in her last year as a New York Teaching Fellow, she says, "I like the special ed population. They're so hard to work with, but there's something about them."

Name: Jenny Kochsiek
School: St. Olaf College
Major: Art History & Studio Art
Years Out of College: 0-2
Title: Special Ed Teacher
Company: New York City Board of Education (New York City Teaching Fellows)
First Steps

In February of her senior year, the art history/studio art near-alum saw grad school as her only option to teaching. Not feeling the doctorate path, she applied to the NYC Teaching Fellows program. "It was kind of mindless in a way, like, 'Oh. Yes. I will do this.' I was applying in an idealistic nature." The New York setting appealed to her- "being in a creative and artistic community." By April, she was accepted for a June start-date. Weeks after graduating from St. Olaf College, Jenny packed up her Minnesota memories and headed for New York.

From Then to Now

Through the first summer, "we taught summer school. They just used it for training instead of student teaching. Everything's set up for you; it's all laid out. What classes you take, when you take them. You just have to jump through the hoops to do them."

"You're basically in grad school and you're teaching. The program part kind of falls to the wayside. You're coming out of college- where everything is exciting- into working full time. You are working all the time. And you're going to school. It's very foreign coming from a nurturing place like college."

Challenges Faced

"The kids are hard to work with. Basically, you're in a room with 30 kids who want/need your attention all the time. You go home at night-- and they call you! They ask you questions to things you don't think to ask. They don't even know they're doing it. Sometimes kids are swearing at me. There's one boy who, when he's in a bad mood, will say, "Get outta my face. Why you up in my face?" They're saying and doing weird stuff, and they are in your world all the time. I don't yell; I just wait for them to get it. Sometimes they never do. It's middle school!"

The kids are a handful, but the adults aren't any easier to figure out. "Parent meetings are weird. "I'm twenty-three, and you're asking me what to do with your child?"

My Experience

Jenny's school has a diverse student population; she estimates a third are Latino, a third are white and a third, black. Some are from housing projects, some from the nicest neighborhoods in the borough. "Kids are pretty much on grade level, though. It's a good school."

"A typical heavy day, I wake up at 6:30 and go to school for morning group- kind of a before-school academic intervention. I sit with a bunch of needy kids, and we do their homework and answer questions. The first year, I co-taught, so I went to classes with my kids and helped them there or in my office. I keep track of 12 kids in my caseload: make and update their files, take care of behavior, but mostly it's about academic needs. School goes from 8:00-3:00. Once a week I have grad classes like Assessments of Special Ed Students or Why We Need To Give Tests at Long Island University from 4:30 to 8:30. "

Next Steps

Jenny completes her last semester of courses this fall and will finish the year with her kids. "I don't know what I'm doing. It's not "It" for me. At the same time, I'm finally starting to think about what it is to be a "good teacher." It's a responsibility thing. I think that if you sign up to teach a school year, you should do the full year. I had to leave during the first year, and it was noted on my students' reports: "Teacher left mid year." It really messes them up. Plus, it's only 10 months."

Did I Ever Think I'd End Up Here?

Her first semester was a reality shock, and continuing the program was a daily debate. "All my ideas about after college were very abstract. I wanted I job where I could do art, too. The first year, I was thrown in a room with a bunch of books. They just said, 'Teach these kids.' I didn't have a Para (para-professional, or teacher's aide). Nobody ever checked in. No guidance. I would cry on my way home every day those first four months. I thought about quitting every day. 'You don't have to do this,' I told myself. I was 22. I just wanted to screw around. But that was worth it. It made me stronger as a person. I'm fortunate to have found a way to balance it."

Advice for Others

"It's teaching without experience. There's no student teaching. It's harder than moving to a foreign country. It's harder than moving here. But it's also empowering. After this, I know I can do anything. That's why they don't tell you what it's really like. If someone had told me, I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't tell someone else not to do it. I'm glad that I did."

In true teacher form, Jenny doesn't encourage or dissuade others from the program. She only wants people to be realistic about what they're signing up for. "It's not a program. You're a teacher, and then you take grad classes. I thought I was just going to "try" to be a teacher. There is no "trying"."

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