E4E Teachers Talk Back: Rob O'Leary
Rob O’Leary has been teaching for 8 years and is currently teaching ESL at the High School for Law and Public Service in Washington Heights. Rob is also an E4E - NY School Captain.
What inspired you to become a teacher?
There are many different reasons I got into teaching. Originally I taught in the former Soviet Union and then taught in the Peace Corps. At that point in my life, teaching was my way of traveling.
For years my dad had been telling me I would be a great teacher and he kept pushing me to actually do something more concrete with my skills. But it wasn’t until one of his mentors, a professor, said “Your son would make a great teacher” until I really started considering making it a career.
It wasn’t just that my father said it, but that someone he respected was saying the same thing made me realize that it might just be the right move.
You’ve lived in many places and taught abroad. What’s unique about teaching in NYC?
I think people who teach in NYC need some life experience before getting into it. It’s actually kind of like Peace Corps in that every day is a new challenge and frequently you don’t have all the materials you should have. You have to think on your toes and adapt to what needs to be done. And you need to be strong, and have the fortitude to really keep pushing through barriers in order to do what needs to be done for the kids.
So what keeps you going?
I think always having new challenges keeps me going. Right now figuring out how to rework ESL lessons to fit Common Core standards is a really interesting challenge. Going back to graduate school at Bank Street kind of revitalized me and really keeps me going. Being a part of E4E has really energized me. And of course the kids – seeing the kids grow and develop is energizing in and of itself.
You recently facilitated an event for E4E teachers to talk about why teacher voice is important. What stood out to you from that experience?
You know, all the teachers last night talked about the word “impact”. We all talked about how we want to make an impact on students, on society on policy. So it’s powerful that there’s a common theme there. I also really enjoyed hearing people’s personal stories.
It makes me think about all the stories I have as a teacher. Like when five years ago I was part of a program where we took 6 kids from the Bronx and 6 kids from Connecticut to Malawi for 3 weeks to build a school. I saw kids change immensely in just those 3 weeks. Or how, over the years, many kids have come up to me and said “I like you because you treat us all the same”. I love that because I don’t want to coddle my kids, I want to be tough, but fair. I think my kids appreciate that I don’t give out favorites – I praise when appropriate and critique when necessary.
Sharing these stories was a theme of the event and really helped teachers get to know each other.
Why do you think it's important that teachers get involved in what's going on outside their classroom?
I think it’s easy for teachers to have the attitude that “I can’t change that problem”. They’ll tell me “I used to be like you when I started” but I think, “I’m 8 years in, when exactly do you expect me to throw in the towel?” I see that often it seems like the government doesn’t care to involve teachers. But E4E is a group of teachers who are all saying, ok, so if that involvement doesn’t exist yet, let’s get teachers together talking about these things and the government might start listening. Then we can have more of an impact.