When Jesus Garcia was an undergraduate at Montclair State University, teaching was the last thing on his mind. He was studying sociology and criminal justice, and also nurturing an interest in science as well as art and design. But when his brother began the New York City Teaching Fellows graduate program through Long Island University - Brooklyn, Jesus’ interest in education pulled ahead of the pack (and won!).
Now, as a teacher specializing in special education at Kingsbridge International High School in the Bronx, Jesus gets to combine his interests in art, history, and science while educating at-risk students. Recently, we chatted about his experiences in grad school as well as his take on being a newly minted teacher in New York City.
What were your original career plans?
I graduated with a bachelor’s in art, but part of the challenge for me in college was that I had so many different interests. Originally, I majored in sociology with a criminal justice minor and switched at some point to art, but then I also had an interest in science. But I would doodle in classes during high school—much like some of my current students—and I never thought this could possibly be a career.
After college, I worked some customer service jobs; I had zero intention to become a teacher. I was unemployed and was exploring different opportunities, and when I heard about the program from my brother I thought, “Why not?” Even though I didn’t know what field I wanted to study, I always knew that I’d want to earn a master’s degree at some point.
What was your grad school experience like?
It was rough; exhausting and really challenging. You need a lot of determination and mental stamina. Not everyone has this exact experience, but I personally had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get to my teaching job in the Bronx. After I was done teaching, I still had to go to my grad school classes in Brooklyn and then drive back to Jersey City, and wouldn’t get home until about 9:00 p.m. It was very tiring having to do both at the same time.
But it was definitely worth it. I finished my final class three weeks ago and it was like earning my stripes. I just tried not to complain and tried to take it one day at a time. Even though I literally just finished, I'm so proud that I can say I did this for the last two years and I finally made it.
How do all of your interests fit in with teaching?
It comes in handy! All the subjects are connected, so whatever your interests, you can always find a way to connect them back to your students.
I teach English and history to ninth and tenth graders, so with my skills in art, I’m able to draw pictures and diagrams to complement lessons. Sometimes I see kids doodling and drawing in their notebooks, and I was the same way as a kid, so I can relate. They may even have the same feelings I did with my notebook doodling; thinking art could never be a career. But I want to encourage them that anything is possible and you never know where life is going to lead.
What has teaching been like for you?
My favorite part is interacting with the students. Each day is different. I learn new things from my students and see and hear things I didn’t know before. It’s not a “clock out at five and forget about it” kind of job. It’s a 24/7 job. I mean, when do you do your lesson plans? When do you prepare materials? It’s always outside of the classroom, sometimes even late at night.
The past two years have changed how I look at education overall. As a teacher, I’m helping these individuals develop and grow into good citizens of the world. I used to think my job as a teacher was being there for students from 8:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., and anything outside of that, like emotional needs, was just outside of my job. But I realize that I do have a responsibility to create a better society by instilling values in students.
But you’re going to run into lots of incidents with students going through things outside the classroom (and sometimes in the classroom) and it’s our duty as teachers to help them because they’re going to be part of the future social fabric of the country. In the end, that just makes our country better.
There’s a lot of work that teachers do behind the scenes that most people don’t know about. You go through a lot emotionally. Crying is normal, especially for new teachers. There are days where you just cry. Personally, I haven’t cried (yet!) and I’m able to cope with stress pretty well, but there are days where I’m just mentally exhausted.
Self-care has become so important in my life. Sleeping in, running, even just sitting at home and doing nothing. As a teacher, you have to take that opportunity to take care of yourself. And I say this to parents too, especially right now!
It’s back-to-school season and COVID-19 is on everyone’s minds. How have you managed with your students throughout the pandemic?
Everything transitioned seamlessly with my graduate program, and quickly changed to virtual classes.
But teaching my classes was a whole different animal. It was a huge struggle for students, especially in certain neighborhoods. It was just so challenging for them. A lot of students in the community struggle with access to the tools and technology needed, and in communities that were already struggling, virtual school only added to that struggle.