Teachers Talk Back: Caroline Onwuemeli-Peters
Caroline is an E4E-NY teacher who teaches high school special education in Washington Heights.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
Initially I actually fell into teaching – I moved up from Florida and I didn’t like what I was doing in insurance. I always wanted to go back to school, so I applied to the Fellows program. I thought I’d only do it for 2 years and move on, but that’s not what happened. Last year my nephew, who had Downs Syndrome, passed away. After I got my certification in Special Education I realized that my work has a bigger purpose. I realized that I’m helping kids just as severe as my nephew – kids who have been pushed to the side and not encouraged to succeed – and I’ve stayed in teaching because of him. Sometimes you jump headfirst into something and the big picture doesn’t show up until later.
Teaching in NYC is hard. What keeps you going?
I was just looking at this article in Forbes that said that 50% of teachers leave after 5 years and I’m proud to say I’m not one of those. Even though it’s stifling and frustrating sometimes, every year my work with my special needs kids keeps me going. Every year I say I’m not going to do as many things (like the talent show, or advisor to this and that club, etc.), and every year I end up eating my words because my kids get me excited about all these things! When you’re busy with the kids in the classroom – telling them to sit down, raise their hands, stay in line, etc. – you don’t realize how much you actually mean to them. My kids give me the strength to move forward and to make changes.
What do you love about your school?
I work with great teachers. In the 7 years that I’ve taught, it amazes me how much the teachers at this school support each other. If you need anything – to put on an event, or if you’re having a baby (which I am) – they’re all there to support you and give you the love you need. I can always rely on one of my co-workers to be creative. One of the classrooms I worked in had no windows, and no AC. One day, one of the teachers came into the classroom and, to lift our spirits, came in and made fake windows. Even though it didn’t do anything for the heat, it put a smile on our faces and reminded us to keep chugging.
Why do you think it's important that teachers get involved in what's going on outside their classroom?
Teachers need to get involved in order to be able to change the structure and to advocate for their kids. The structure of the system right now is that you become a teacher and you stay a teacher, that’s it. I feel that as a teacher there should be some upward mobility and teachers should have an opportunity to grow in our field. I can see so many holes in Special Education and there’s nothing I feel I can do to make Special Education work. For example, we need to make sure that ALL of a Special Education student’s teachers have access to that child's academic information to better inform their instruction. This is also an example of how teachers need to get involved so they can advocate for their kids. Right now the only way to do that is to go back to school and become and administrator – I don’t want to do that, I like working with my students. I’ve been doing this for 7 years and I still struggle with these questions about Special Education structures. Until someone shows us the way, we, as teachers, need to create opportunities to share our ideas.