This month, we’ve been honoring women leaders and educators, many of whom overcame childhood adversity. We looked within our own schools to find inspirational educators who are strong women, and found no shortage. Listen in on our conversation with four of the dedicated teachers who are changing their students’ lives: at P.S. 6x in the Bronx: Ms. Hughes and Mrs. Redzepagic, Ms. Payne at P.S. 329 in Coney Island, and Ms. George, the assistant principal at Grant Avenue. They admit to struggling when they were in school themselves, how their students inspire them, and what they need more of in their classrooms.
CFK: Did someone inspire you to become a teacher? Who, and how?
Ms. George: My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Alexis, inspired me to become a teacher. She was the first and only African American teacher I had until I reached my sophomore year in high school. She was SUPER STRICT, but BRILLIANT!!
Ms. Hughes: I thought I chose teaching as a profession by myself, but as I learned about my family history in Jamaica, I realized my ancestors were teachers and nurses on both sides of my family. It was already in the blood; I was chosen.
Mrs. Redzepagic: Initially, I thought I’d be an advertising executive in a marketing firm. Along the way I was an assistant manager at a bank, where my manager always complimented me on how well I trained and taught new staff. One day she told me I would make an amazing teacher, and asked me to visit her daughter’s classroom. I did...and instantly fell in love with the profession. I signed up for graduate school the next day. My bank manager told me that was her plan all along. I credit her with inspiring me. We’re still good friends.
Ms. Payne: My mother inspired me; she worked for the Department of Education for 35 years - first as a Reading Specialist and eventually as a Dean. I saw her love for other people’s children as well as her own, and her willingness to do whatever it takes to educate them. I grew up seeing that one teacher can really make a difference in a student’s life, and that shaped me as a person.
CFK: How are your students inspiring you?
Ms. Payne: They inspire me to be my best self for them as an educator and as a role model. They also inspire me as on a deeper level, because I’ve seen such young children go through things many people cannot imagine and still show up for school each and every day with a hopeful attitude, eager to learn.
Ms. Hughes: My students force their teachers to understand them as people and learners before they will respect us enough to allow them to be taught. They are strong, determined, and they are themselves.
Ms. George: Students I’ve taught in the past inspired me by overcoming some really tough odds. They grew up in Crown Heights during the 90’s - when drugs, crime, and police misconduct were the norm. My students had a seriousness of purpose and a desire to better themselves, which they understood began with showing up every day - so they did. Some came from horrific backgrounds and living conditions, but they committed to showing up. My students at Grant Avenue now amaze and inspire me. They manage to hold on to their innocence in spite of all the unfortunate circumstances that surround them. They come here to learn, grow, and be kind friends to one another.
Mrs. Redzepagic: Yes! They inspire all the time. Some of them have such difficult home lives, but still come to school every day with smiles on their faces. They persist through challenges and never give up. They keep me going even when I feel I can’t anymore. I work harder to make sure that they continue to achieve.
CFK: Did you ever struggle as a student? If you did, how did you overcome it?
Mrs. Redzepagic: I didn’t struggle academically, however, I was one of those very quiet students who never raised their hand, and didn’t make friends easily. I was often overlooked in the classroom because I was so quiet. My fifth grade teacher pulled me aside one day to work with me on my writing. She told me I had so much to say, and should shout it whenever I could. She would call on me and give me opportunities to speak even when I didn’t raise my hand. I changed a lot that year. I grew as a student and as a person.
Ms. George: I was THE WORST MATH STUDENT ON THE PLANET!!! My high school Math Teacher, Mrs. Karteginer, helped me make sense of math in ways that no teacher had previously been able to; she took time to really break down mathematical concepts. She built my confidence as a learner, and as a result, I vowed to never shy away from math again because I knew that there was a way for me to make sense of it even if it took me more time than others.
Ms. Payne: I struggled with Social Studies; it just seemed like a bunch of timelines and people that I didn’t know, that didn’t look like me, a little black girl from Coney Island. Later, by making up songs and raps with my older brother who had an aptitude for relating information to dates, it became fun. I became more interested in history in college. I took an African History course that changed my perspective of the black experience in America.
Ms. Hughes: I was great at reading and writing as a student but I struggled quite a bit in math. My father was great in math, and had strong ideas about how a mathematician should be. He taught me to ask for support, and to practice. I learned to tell my teachers that math is hard for me, and it’s their responsibility to support me to help me learn.
CFK: What do you need more of in the classroom?
Ms. Hughes: As a special education teacher with students that usually struggle with reaching grade level standards, focus, and engagement, I need more games. My students are more inclined to attempt a new task or practice old ones through games. Sight words, math, and vocabulary games are welcome.Mrs. Redzepagic: My students love to read a variety of books, magazines, articles; anything they can get their hands on. In our classroom we could use a lot more books and other reading materials to inspire the students to keep reading.
Ms. Payne: I need more books with children of color. I need easier access to resources that portray examples of people of color. I would like to see our young girls learn to code or get access to materials that would inspire them to do things in any of the STEAM fields.
Ms. George: Teachers need more time. Time to get to the core of what students know, so they are able to capitalize on students’ strengths to make them feel confident about their ability to learn.
Thank you to our teachers, principals, staff members who are making a memorable difference in the lives of the students in our CFK schools.