City Fields


Credit: Howard Liberman/New York Public Library

A day in the life of a first-grade teacher in Brooklyn.

The city of New York employs nearly half a million citizens, more than any other municipality in the country. We decided to speak with some of those employees about their work and what it takes to keep the biggest city in America running.

A first-grade teacher at a public elementary school in Brooklyn—name withheld—spoke with TMN about her job. This interview has been edited.

I usually get up around six, and do a little bit of work—sometimes answer parent emails. Then I get to work between seven and eight, set some things up. There’s a lot to clean up with 24 kids every day.

And then just getting things ready for the day. Some more long-range planning has been done ahead of time, but every morning—just making sure you have everything you need for everything that you’re planning, and everything that might arise. You know, thinking about what might come up with particular kids, you know, whatever’s happening with them at home or might come in during that day. That kind of thing.

They come in around 8:30. In elementary school we teach it all, so usually reading and writing in the morning, sometimes math as well, and science and social studies in the afternoon. I have about an hour for lunch in the middle of the day. A lot of that time is either meeting with colleagues, sometimes meeting with parents, sometimes getting things prepped for the afternoons, so if it’s, you know, a science lesson that’s hands-on, it’s putting that out. Or if we’re doing an art project it might be getting the watercolors out or whatever. Whatever needs to be done.

Sometimes there are things that come up with kids during the day that you want to check in with them one-on-one during recess, or lunchtime, so you just pull them aside for a little while. So sometimes lunch goes from an hour to 15 minutes depending on how many little things pop up during the day.

I usually like to have, in the afternoon, a book we read aloud. This year they’ve really loved E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web, and a lot of Roald Dahl books have really just hooked them right in. It’s always great when a book ends and kids erupt in applause or, you know, it’s time for them to pack up at the end of the day, and when I start to close the book they’re groaning that I have to stop reading. That’s a lot of fun.

Dismissal’s usually at three o’clock. Sometimes I teach a small group from three to four. Then, you know, cleaning up at the end of the day. Get a meeting in with colleagues sometimes. Getting prepped for the next day. Sometimes parent meetings after school. That’s the average day. Probably get out of there between five or six.

I’ve been teaching 10 years, and I always think, “Next year will be the year that I can just, you know, when I close the door, I close the door.” But every year it happens that when I come home, if there’s an email, or something to type for them, or whatever, I haven’t managed to close the door. So, it continues on. Like, even if I’ve spent 24 hours and I didn’t sleep, I’d still never feel like I was really, really, you know, on top of everything all the time.

My mom, when she knew I was teaching—going into teaching—she said, “You’re gonna be doing 12 months of work in 10 months, and if you can think of it that way, it’ll make the day-to-day more manageable.” The work offers many challenges, but incredible rewards. I get to spend as much time—as many waking hours—with these children as a lot of the parents do, so I get to see them really grow in a year. If they come in at age six and leave at age seven, a percentage of their life has been, you know, with this group. You have to teach them to cooperate, and to know that not everyone’s exactly the same. I think that’s something I really also like about the public school system. If you take the subway, you don’t get to choose who’s on the subway with you. If you’re in a public school classroom, you know, you have to find a way to work with other people.

There are parts of paperwork that are tedious. To write report cards takes usually two full weekends.

You know, working with little kids there’s—I’ve been sneezed on. I have to call the custodian to clean up vomit, and when the custodian doesn’t come, you have to clean it up, you know. We have pinkeye in the classroom right now. There are classes that have lice come up every couple weeks. So there’s that.

Parents are mostly really helpful and supportive, but there are times where you think, “Wait, do I need to set a boundary?” That kind of thing. I think in general—you know, what’s most helpful for me is when I see the same kid that the parent sees, and we wanna work on it, whatever the thing is, together. So if a parent’s insisting a child is a certain way, and they can’t hear, you know, something that might need support, that’s tricky, because then where do you build? If we see the same kid, then we can absolutely work together.

There are times I think, “Wow, if I had an office job, I could go to the bathroom whenever I need to!” Or I wouldn’t have to take a class of 24 on the subway and worry, worry, worry, what ifs? I’ve never had a problem, but, you know. It could be a very big problem. I’ve never lost a whole class. Never even lost a whole kid. But an office job, I wouldn’t have that kind of worry. I never thought I could work in a cubicle. I feel like the classroom is the place for me.

Just like any profession, there are all kinds of people in it. I feel like in the past few years there are people who are saying, oh—I guess the tenure debate has come up. I’m tenured. This idea, like, if a teacher’s tenured, are they just getting lazy? Or they have their summers off. Or, oh, they only work from nine to three. I don’t think most people believe that. I think, especially if people have children, if people have families, if people ever hosted a birthday party for 10 kids, they know this is not an easy job. I often wish that people who made education decisions—or educational policy decisions—I often wish that they had to substitute-teach in every grade without sub plans. You know, just to really feel it, to feel that it is not an easy job. Then, I mean, not only do they ask us to do that, but they ask us to meet certain standards, to differentiate our instruction to meet every student’s needs, to communicate with parents. So if you’re substitute-teaching for a day, you’d just have to keep them safe, you know? That alone can be a challenge sometimes.

Part of this goes in with testing, right? So if children are being tested and teachers are being evaluated based on student tests, well, there are things that make sense about that, but children are unpredictable. So if they had a great third-grade teacher, and they did great on the third-grade test, they had a great fourth-grade teacher, and they didn’t sleep the night before the fourth-grade test, or, you know, their grandmother died—whatever—then they’re gonna tank, and that fourth-grade teacher gets lower ratings. Because the sample size is only that teacher’s class, and that’s never even 100.

The other thing is—a colleague of mine said, “People think, ‘Oh, if we’re tenured, we’ll just start slacking off.’” Well, there’s no way to do that in a classroom. If you would try to slack off, suddenly the class is in chaos, and, you know, for your own sanity you have to be prepared and get the kids engaged in their learning. You have to do your job. You have to be on top of your game every minute.

Sometimes I think people think people [who] are teachers—you know, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” We don’t like that saying because so many people I think are born to teach, and it’s kind of a unique skill set. There are some elementary school teachers who I feel like they are so intuitive and bright and, you know, they graduated from Harvard, and I think sometimes people don’t get that because we also do things like put Band-Aids on boo-boos, you know? It’s like, “Oh that can’t be someone smart.” Or they’re surprised that you do a summer seminar through Fulbright or something, and then—you don’t know, but that’s who I am, too.

I often have thought, you know, I’m gonna retire in the classroom I’m in. There’s something so sweet about even—my first students are now in college, and they’ll come back and visit, and they’ll come back to the very same school, and they’ll find me in my classroom, and there’s something really great about that. So part of me feels like, I can’t imagine anything else. Like, it is part of who I am.

How do you feel about being an employee of New York City?

It is enormous. I mean, my new teacher orientation was held at Madison Square Garden. It is a beast, and it is a beast with a lot of inequality, and there are schools where—I’m in a school where I love to talk to my colleagues, and they’re smart and engaged, and there’s not a person who’s not working hard and thinking about students all the time. But there are schools in the New York City public school system where that is not always the case. That makes it hard. It makes it hard to be part of that kind of system. I mean, in general, because I’m generally happy with my school and my colleagues and my administrators, I like that part of teaching and being part of New York City in that way. It is; it’s a beast.

Know a New York City employee who’d be interested in talking about the job? Contact Erik Bryan.


TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan