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BryAnn Sandy | Reflections of a new teacher

I was born in Brooklyn. I grew up from pre-K to seventh grade in the Bronx — but then they started to raise the rent. The buildings were terrible. My mom told us the rent prices and the conditions of living were not adding up, and when they raised the rent again, that was the last straw. 

So going into my eighth grade year, that’s when we moved back to Brooklyn. When my mom told me, I cried for days. I knew I’d have to make new friends and do all the end-of-junior-high stuff with new people. It was a lot for me. I kept crying and crying.

My mom finally asked, ‘What can we do as a compromise?’ She asked me if I was comfortable taking the train by myself from Brooklyn to the Bronx, which is at least an hour and a half on a good day. I said yes. 

I used to get up at four in the morning because I had to be on the train by 5:30, to make it to school by 7:30. My stepdad is a train operator, and in the beginning, he switched his schedule so that I was on his train for most of the way to the Bronx. 

It helped me become more independent — I used to be a mama’s girl real bad. I was attached to my mom at the hip. But I was determined to finish out middle school in the Bronx. 

I didn’t think of it as draining because it was my choice. I wanted to be with my friends, who I’d gone to school with since kindergarten. We were all very close, and we hung out after school, on the weekends… all the time. The thought of having to acclimate somewhere different wasn’t clicking for me at all. That wasn’t an option in my head. I never looked back. 

So I had a four-hour commute as a 13-year-old.

In the Bronx, we’d lived in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. All of my friends were Dominican and spoke Spanish. Even though my family is Hispanic, I didn’t grow up speaking it. My mom’s side is Puerto Rican, and my dad’s side is Guyanese, so I had a mix of backgrounds. My friends were fully Dominican, raised with Spanish-speaking culture, so I felt a disconnect. However, they never made me feel like I didn’t belong. 

When I moved to Brooklyn, my new friends were Caribbean: mostly Jamaicans, Haitians, and Guyanese. It was a shock when they commented on my light skin. Then I started to learn Spanish, and they would say, ‘You’re not Black, you’re Spanish,’ which was confusing. But eventually, I acclimated.

I went to a very small high school called P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School). I was in the third graduating class. They didn’t have many clubs, but my mom always told me, ‘You’re joining something, because you’re not gonna be out in the streets doing God-knows-what.’ 

At the time, we only had robotics, track, and basketball. Robotics was not for me, and I have no hand-eye coordination for basketball, so I joined the track team. And I actually fell in love with it. It showed me that the only way you can be great is if you put in hard work and dedication, and no one can hold you back but yourself. I fell in love with that feeling. And I just kept running. 

At first, I was terrible, especially at cross country. But my coach, he was always big on speaking words of affirmation into me and letting me know I was great and that we could do this. I ended up graduating with the #1 time in the state in the 400 hurdles. 

It definitely helped with discipline and making sure that I managed my time well, because after practice, I got home late, and I still had homework to do. Track taught me to prioritize what’s important and what needs to be done. It definitely helped keep me on track, especially with time management. Because if I didn’t keep everything organized, it was gonna be chaos.

As a kid, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. But in high school, I started to think about what else I might do.

P-TECH is a technology school, and at the end of my junior year, we each had an internship with IBM. It was a full paid internship where we worked at the IBM office with a team. Up until that point, I’d only seen offices that were boring gray cubicles, but IBM had coffee and snacks and a staff room — I felt like I was in paradise. I started thinking about whether I should pursue that kind of work. And at the same time, my principal was telling me about other options, besides teaching. He was like, ‘Girl, they make no money. There’s more out there for you.’

But I had two other teachers, my history teacher and my trigonometry teacher, who embodied what I wanted to be in life. I fell in love with them and the way they teach. I could see the impact they had on us in real time while I was living it, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be.’

There were a lot of people in my class who hated math, but our teacher made it fun and engaging. She found different ways for us to explore on our own to find the answer. She let us do our own thing to get to the answer, if that makes sense. She had different games where it didn’t seem like we were doing math, but by the end, we’d learned a whole lesson. She actually made people like math. Seeing that shift in people was amazing.

My history teacher, Miss Casey, was very passionate. She was probably in her 60s, but didn’t seem like it at all and did not act like it. She’d been teaching for at least 40 years at that point. I came to find out that she knew my whole family: she’d taught my dad, and she’d even taught my grandma, because Miss Casey was from Guyana and started teaching there when she was very young. I wasn’t the only one whose family knew her, either. A lot of our parents were taught by her. 

Miss Casey cared about the whole kid. She made a lot of close connections with our parents, and whenever she said, ‘This baby needs to do this,’ they listened to her. 

She used to tell my mom to drop me off on the weekend. I’d go to her house to study for the state test, because she didn’t feel that my scores were reflecting me. That’s what she said to me: ‘That score does not reflect you.’ So she put in the extra time and work, and then I got a 90-something on that test. 

She had a whole classroom set up in her basement, and I stayed there all day. She fed us. She taught us. I call her Mama Casey.

We were like a big family at my school, because everyone knew everybody. All the adults were supporting and pouring into all of us. All the teachers were my teacher, even if I never actually had them as a teacher, because they would all help me in some way.

I didn’t even know about Georgetown until my high school coach told me about it. I’d been a part of the #1 4×400-meter relay in the state, but big schools weren’t paying me any attention. 

At a cross country meet during my senior year, my coach introduced me to the Georgetown coach. We clicked instantly; he reminded me of home, which made me want to go there, even though I didn’t know much about Georgetown. He helped me get into the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which paid for most of my college. I majored in Justice and Peace Studies. 

At the end of my junior year, I was on spring break with my friends when the pandemic hit. We got an email telling us we couldn’t come back to school. 

It was overwhelming, especially living in a two-bedroom apartment with six family members again. The transition from the freedom of college to being locked down at home was tough. My mom, who was understandably scared, wouldn’t let me go anywhere. It was mentally draining. I couldn’t work out or run much, which had been my way to relieve stress. The abrupt change made me shut down.

When they eventually let us return to school in the fall, only certain people were allowed back — mostly athletes. The campus still felt empty. I didn’t just snap back into school mode; I was in a funk and didn’t really address it. I acted like nothing was wrong. I didn’t talk to anyone, not even my mom. I pretended everything was fine, but I was dealing with a lot of sadness. 

I practiced with my team for about a month before I got injured. I’ve always had shin splints, but they worsened to the point where it hurt to walk sometimes. I couldn’t run with my team anymore. Additionally, there was uncertainty about whether we could have track meets and how many people could attend because of COVID. It was overwhelming. I lost my love for track. I basically faded away and didn’t participate in track meets anymore.

During that year, Georgetown had a career fair. There was a whole section on education and teaching, and I talked to all the tables. Some of the tables were for specific networks like KIPP, and then they had the different programs like City Teaching Alliance, Teach for America, stuff like that. I’d always known I wanted to be a teacher, but I’d never really planned to be a teacher. I never did research on where I should teach or how to go about teaching, because with the way people talked about it, I expected it to fall into my lap.

So I applied for Teach for America, mostly because it was the program everyone had heard of. I got denied. It rocked my confidence and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, maybe I’m not meant to be a teacher. Is it me?’ I’d lost running, and now I felt like I’d lost teaching.

Then I got an email from City Teaching Alliance, which was called Urban Teachers at the time. I decided to go through the application process, which includes interviews and a mock lesson. In Spring 2021, I got accepted into the program. But by then, I’d been having a rough semester. I was in a bad place, and I had to take incompletes in most of my classes. I kept thinking, ‘This is not how it’s supposed to be.’

In order to start at City Teaching Alliance, I had to have my bachelor’s degree, but now I didn’t have enough credits to finish my final semester. It made me even more depressed. I finally reached out to someone in the program. They told me, ‘Life happens. It’s not the end of the world. We’re still going to support you.’ They let me defer a year. They held on to my approval and said I could be part of the 2022 cohort if I finished my degree.

That experience made me feel like everything happened for a reason. I was excited to be part of the program and thought, ‘Okay, now I’m going to grind so I can make it. I can do this.’

I’m currently getting my master’s degree in teaching. Last year, as a resident teacher, I worked with fifth grade math. I loved it. The kids were at an age where they’re still kids, but they’re a bit more mature. When I moved to this school, the administration asked me which grades I felt comfortable teaching, and I told them, ‘I love fifth grade, but I’m open to wherever you need me. I’m here to help.’ They said, ‘Oh great. You’re going to have first grade.’ 

Wow, it’s a big difference. They are tiny. Some of them act like they’re grown, but some of them act like they’re in pre-K, so it’s a mix of beautiful chaos. I love it, but it’s self-contained, which means I’m the only person teaching all the subjects. There’s reading, knowledge skills, math, and now they also want us to tie in science and social studies. It’s a headache having to make all those different lessons. But when I see my kids learning and enjoying the lessons, it makes it worth it.

One of my students, who I’ll refer to as Amazing, is quite a handful. She tends to wander around and leave the classroom. She doesn’t like her seat. At first, I found it daunting. But then I started to observe her closely, understanding her likes, dislikes, and triggers. I implemented strategies like a ‘first then’ chart and a behavior chart, and I started using ClassDojo more with the whole class so she can see her points up on the screen. I got blue tilting chairs that let her move more. And I started giving her jobs. 

All the students get jobs, but I started giving Amazing jobs for any little thing, and she loves it. Any time I need someone to pass out papers or turn off the lights or close the door, she loves taking on that responsibility. 

I also spoke with her mom and found out that she has sensitive skin, and there’s an ointment she uses at home. Her mom suggested using Vaseline for school, and when she’s feeling itchy or uncomfortable, I tell her to put her it on, and then she goes back to work. Her body feels better, and then she can learn.

I’m still trying to figure out what works best for her, but these methods help her focus and reduce classroom disruptions. Being able to transform a seemingly impossible situation into a successful one deepened my passion for teaching. It reminded me of the importance of understanding and connecting with each child as an individual.

I have discouraging moments. There was a time when Miss Amazing was having a very, very, very chaotic day. She was stepping on people’s feet, literally while we were learning, just doing too much — running around the classroom, bothering people on purpose. It was frustrating. Once I got one thing in order, she was on to doing something else. There was so much going on. 

I started to feel physically sick. I didn’t feel like myself. It was so draining. Then at the end of the day, we had this long professional development session, and they threw a whole bunch more stuff at us about things we needed to get done. The turnover time for it was unrealistic, and suddenly everything felt never-ending. 

I was like, ‘Oh my god, is this what teaching is like? I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ 

I went home and called my mom about my day. She’s a social worker, and she’s been helping me find ways to manage Miss Amazing’s behavior. She reminded me, ‘You’ve wanted to do this since you were five years old. You finally got here, and you knew it was not going to be easy. You were meant to be there, and you’re there for a reason. So you can’t give up. If you give up, then who’s going to care for the kids like you do? You’ve just got to take it one day at a time and keep showing up.’ 

She was right. Speaking to people who know me helps me remember my passion and where I want to go.

But teachers also need more time. We can do this, but we need more time. 

We’ve been advocating for ourselves. We spoke to admin about having extended planning. We have 45 minutes of planning time each day, and in that time, I get a lot done. So imagine if we each had a little bit more time at work to lesson plan. We could get enough sleep, and we could help more students. And maybe the students could have more clubs or specials during that time.

I believe that as a teacher, working on yourself is crucial. The teachers who made a difference in my life cared about me as a person, and that inspired me to become a teacher. Being intentional, having a growth mindset, and always showing up can foster something in children. It’s about opening their minds to possibilities, not forcing your aspirations on them. Just like how teenagers often do the opposite of what they’re told, forcing ideas on students can be counterproductive.

For me personally, having always known I wanted to be a teacher, it feels like I’m living my dream. I have bad days and long days, of course, but I can’t see myself doing anything else. I see my future in education, whether I move up in the field or not. 

My boyfriend is also a teacher pursuing his master’s, and we’re in the same City Teaching Alliance cohort. He’s encouraged me to get back to running. When the Dallas heat isn’t too bad, I can run like I used to.

–BryAnn Sandy
Teacher at Nancy J. Cochran Elementary School
City Teaching Alliance Fellow, Cohort 2022
Dallas, Texas