I went into teaching as a change of career. After spending about 7 years as a textile designer in the fashion industry, my soul needed a drastic change of focus. I applied for a spot in New York City Teaching Fellows, a program aimed at bringing people (with little or no teaching experience but comprehensive professional backgrounds) into some of the most difficult classrooms throughout the 5 boroughs. In exchange for two years of my service, the city of New York sent me to graduate school to learn how to become a teacher. The rest, was up to me.
My 6 years of teaching in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, first as an Art teacher and then Horticulture teacher, were grueling, yet challenged me in ways I never expected. Our neighborhood was like a forgotten island, literally walled in and cut off from the rest of its borough by crisscrossing highways and the Bronx River. And it wasn’t just the residents of this area that were isolated. The teachers and administrators were at the bottom of our regional totem pole, all of us just trying to do our best with scant resources, challenging kids, and an (almost) absent parent component. Layering in the influence of drugs, gangs, and a host of other social and economical obstacles didn’t make things any easier.
Here at Green Chimneys, I have found myself at the opposite end of the spectrum. There is a strong support system, a team of people with common hopes and goals for our students and programs. There was one day in particular this week when we were fortunate to have many extra helping hands. Our classes went so smoothly, and I sensed that the children got more out of their time in the garden than usual.
One of the most important resources we have on the farm is our interns. Depending on the internship track, the (usually) recent college grads spend between 3 – 6 months at Green Chimneys. Each week they bring their allotted students to their program areas to work, but they also help out in some of our farm classes as well. In one particular class, student Kolby was incredibly excited to see “his farm worker” lending a hand in garden class. He excitedly asked if he could work with Ms. Isabelle on a special project, just the two of them. Of course I was happy to accommodate, and it was touching to see their relationship grow as they took on the tasks I assigned them. Kolby worked with more focus and enthusiasm than I usually note, and the team completed all jobs with smiles on their faces. Talk about building self esteem!
Another invaluable resource we have is our volunteers. In the garden we have a few dedicated, indispensable participants that I rely on. Recently our chef, Mark, requested we harvest some key ingredients for his vocational culinary class; his plan was to make ratatouille. (On a recent visit to the garden, Mark had admired our row of Asian and Italian eggplant, heavy with fruit). Our volunteer Deirdre took 2 students from each class on Tuesday and not only harvested the requested ingredients but also cleaned up the plants as needed while leading a discussion regarding their culture and culinary uses. The students were also able to ask all the questions they had, offer their opinions and make connections with the vegetables and herbs, while familiarizing themselves with the textures, scents and look of plants such as Swiss chard, kale, basil and parsley to name a few.
When teaching children with social and emotional disabilities, there are some rough days. Our students are dealing with real challenges and intense emotional trials, and on a day-to-day basis we are endowed with teaching assistants (TAs) who travel with their classes to our varied program areas (garden, farm science, etc.). Each TA brings a close relationship with their students, as well as a detailed understanding of where each student is emotionally and in relation to his or her classmates. The TA personnel are paramount to keeping the rest of the staff aware of issues that may develop during the day.
Working together, supporting each other, good things happen. Children get the individual attention they crave and develop relationships and trust with adults who care about their personal growth and education. For me, collaboration with interns, volunteers and TAs means tailored garden activities to smaller groups, allowing students to benefit from quality hands-on experiences. And ultimately, it means less frustrated learners. And it’s a win-win: our interns gain experience in fields they are contemplating pursuing; volunteers get to work in areas of interest while making a small but impactful difference in a child’s life; and TAs connect the dots for many staff here who appreciate their level of knowing and caring for our students.