E4E Teachers Talk Back: Nickoleta Lytras
Nickoleta Lytras discusses changing career paths to enter teaching, being an adjunct faculty member at Hunter College, and the federal government’s new Project RESPECT.
Nickoleta teaches special education and general education sixth grade math/science in Gramercy.
How did you get into teaching?
I grew up the oldest of three girls, and my dad – from the moment I had two sisters – was basically telling me I would be a teacher, and he would even call me daskala– the Greek word for teacher – every time he saw me. I liked the idea, but as I got older, I had other things I was interested in. I went to college, studied theater, but decided I didn’t want to do it. I went to The New School, got a master’s in media studies, and didn’t want to do it. I found myself working at a creative services firm, and I was really good at it – I was promoted quickly, I was willing to put in the extra time, but after a couple years, I just wasn’t really into it. I was willing to put in the work, I was staying at work late, and at the end, I didn’t actually care about what I was doing. It wasn’t fulfilling to me. I guess teaching had always been at the back of my head, so I applied for the New York City Teaching Fellows program, and at that point, everything started to work in my favor.
You’re an adjunct faculty member at Hunter College. What has your experience been like?
I really like it. In the class I teach, grad students are paired with a student with learning disabilities, and they are expected to develop a clinical teaching plan for what that student needs to be successful in school – it gives grad students a chance to build a critical teaching portfolio, and gives students an opportunity to get free tutoring for a year. I observe grad students as they’re tutoring and give them feedback. Usually, I like to do it immediately, whether it’s stepping in and modeling or writing a note. Sometimes, I need to give feedback afterward. Then we have a seminar and discuss things that have happened this week, so they can learn from each other, or sometimes I do a lesson – some of my students needed a reading review on Recipe for Reading, one of the remediation programs they use, so sometimes we take a seminar to do that.
How does doing this inform your teaching?
It informs my teaching through the feedback bit – it reminds me to give feedback to my students. They’re working with one kid, so they can individualize lessons; it reminds me to do that too, but the feedback piece is a more immediate thing that I can integrate into class the next day.
You also recently attended a U.S. Department of Education convening on Project RESPECT. Can you tell us what RESPECT aims to do and what the convening meant for you?
The project aims to transform the teaching profession in a way that it is seen as more professional. It’s overwhelming in that it’s a great initiative, but I can’t wrap my brain around how it’s going to happen. I was thinking: How is this possible? How are we going to get people on board?
The main thing I took away from it was the career ladders part. It will make teaching more rigorous. It’s structured differently so that it’s more competitive – people who get into teaching want to do it, where they have to go into a 1-2 year residency. After that, you have to climb up a career ladder. Speaking for myself, I know I’m happy in the classroom, but… personally, I have no interest in being a principal. You would be a master teacher, mentor other people – that was really appealing to me. It gives you a chance to improve in your own profession, but still be in a classroom, work with kids. Right now, the opportunities are mainly the administrative route; you don’t really get to be in the classroom as much.
How will a career ladder help professionalize the teaching profession?
Right now, anyone can be a teacher – I was thrown into the classroom and wasn’t fully prepared. …I’m at a school where I feel like we really are respected by the administration, parents, and students, but I feel like a career ladder would help professionalize the teaching profession because there would be a track. You can be seen as a professional with years of experience, and be a teacher, but gain new responsibilities and challenges without having to leave the classroom. You don’t have to be a principal to seek something new.
Why is it important for teachers to get involved in issues outside of the classroom?
I joined E4E in June, and I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t know too much about education policy, how decisions are made, or the role of the union and district in these decisions till I joined E4E. I think it's really important to understand how these decisions that impact our students and us are made. Because these policies impact us, we’re the ones who are in a position to help give our input and push for policies that makes sense – I think it’s important because teachers and students are the ones who are going to have to carry out policies.