Masha Tarasyuk graduated Barnard College with a degree in Economics. After working two years in economic consulting she joined Teach for America. She has worked as a high school math teacher in Brooklyn for three years while completing her Masters in Secondary Math Education at Fordham University. She will be starting Columbia Business School this fall.
From my personal experience as an immigrant to New York, and as a product of the public education system, I have felt the impact of supportive educators and the limitless opportunities available through education and hard work. However, I also know that my experience is not representative. I joined Teach for America mainly for the typical reasons — I strongly believe education makes a difference in the lives of individuals and society and I wanted to take part in a cause I believed in.
However, in my first month as a high school geometry teacher the compasses were used as darts, my handouts trampled, and the lessons, so carefully planned, went unheard above the chatter and I almost forgot the reasons why I started teaching. I just knew I could not fail.
“I hate math! I’ve always been bad at it there’s no point in trying, Miss” I frequently heard this from my students. Teaching students several years behind their peers academically is demanding, and there are countless — seemingly insurmountable — obstacles to their success. However, slowly I learned how to be a better teacher. I stayed up late researching how to motivate my students. I woke up at 5am, and arrived at school by 6:15 to prepare for my daily attempt to prove my students wrong.
That moment when a student “gets it” and solves a problem seemingly beyond his reach before, when a girl with learning disabilities dealing with personal issues far beyond those of most adults feels confident enough to keep volunteering in class until she nails it, when my teenage students succeed and exclaim, “I’m smart!” with the sincere joy and astonishment of a kid — those moments are absolutely the best feeling in the world.
At the end of my first year teaching I received this email:
“I don’t know if you know this or not but I was in the geometry class that they had last year. I sucked soooo bad that my previous math teacher advise that I leave lol. So in the beginning of the year I was of course, scared to death … But, you made things so much easier…I have a tendency to remember random things and something stuck with me that you said. (I don’t know if you remember this or not) You explained during the beginning of the year, that there was a big difference between being a student and a scholar. Where a scholar was someone who never stops learning. And you wanted us all to be scholars. Until you said that, I never thought of it that way. I know I fooled around ALOT and talked ALOT. Which reflected in my exam scores and even the Regents score. But I one day hope to grow to truly understand that meaning and take advantage of what you or any teacher has to offer me. All in all THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH!!!!!!! ”
I say I stayed on beyond my two-year commitment because I wanted to see my first class graduate high school (close to 90% graduation in a district with typically 50%), and because, feeling more confident in my role, I now have an opportunity to make a more lasting impact on my students and the school. While this is all true, I mostly stayed because there is nothing that gives me greater joy. I love the act of teaching. Although at times I become frustrated with my students, I care about them, and daily I get the chance to make a difference. There are still days when my lessons don’t elicit the desired responses, but I try to show my students — and they prove to me — that there is a point in trying.
And yet, look at my bio above. This is my last year — at least in the short term. Why?
I fear that I cannot fully serve my students and that the longer I stay the more complacent I will become. As a public school teacher, I am constantly asked to do things that are frankly illogical and not for the benefit of my students. The overall system is clearly broken. I’m leaving my classroom and going back to school in hopes of figuring out how to fix the system on a macro scale. I want to help make it more logical and prepared to meet the demands of our students and the society.