Growing up I was given the opportunity to attend amazing schools. However, those schools were often outside of my zip code and required me to give up pieces of myself in order to find success. That is one of the main reasons I found myself in education. I became a teacher because no child should have to sacrifice who they are in order to be granted a quality education. I wanted students to see that someone who looks like them, sounds like them, and grew up in a similar background can go forth and be a big force in this world, which is what they’re meant to be. I wanted our black and brown babies to know that, despite the messages the world gives them, they can and will be great. I wanted them to see that message living in myself, and the teachers around them.
Every day I try to be an example for my little ones of what it means to overcome those barriers. And I do it alongside my co-teacher, Brooke.
Brooke started off as a finger puppet. I actually saw another teacher who had a Grover puppet, and I was mesmerized by how engaged the kids were looking at him. Even as an adult, I couldn’t look away—and watching how engrossed the kids were, I knew that this was an example of how teaching could be both rigorous, and fun!
You, as the teacher have to invest the kids, they have to deeply want to be there before you can teach them. We always say we want to create classrooms where, if given the choice to leave, our kids would stay. I knew I wanted to make my classroom a place where every child would choose to stay.
I am a big kid myself, and from the womb, I’ve always been a little bit extra. So, three years ago, I decided to buy three puppets – Leo, Jorge, and the only “human” in the group, Brooke. I watched a lot of Jeff Dunham on Comedy Central so that I could try(emphasis on try) to figure out this art– I would stop and re-record myself on camera, so I could learn how to clench my teeth, or how to hide my face if you could see my mouth moving.
And as Brooke became a fixture in my classroom, I immediately saw the impact. With her, we found so many times during the day to smile, and laugh, and I knew we were making the time spent with the kids really memorable.
When the kids are invested, all academic data will follow. I noticed that the kiddos would pick up on certain concepts much quicker if they sang a song or learned with Brooke. They always wanted to try their best so they could make her proud. There were times when they even tried to teach Brooke a thing or two, really pushing their learning. Whenever Brooke tried to answer a question and got the problem wrong, I noticed more students (even our more quiet friends) participating because they wanted to help her. Brooke really helped kids come out of their shells, take risks, and get their voices out there. They saw a little bit of themselves in Brooke. She was someone they could relate to, and it has made a big difference. With Brooke around, they were so motivated to do the work and to stay engaged. They knew that if Brooke could do it, they could too! And, when we transitioned to remote learning this year, of course my sidekick came along! I saw that I could still make videos with Brooke and reach not only the kids in my classroom but so many other kids I would never have the chance to teach.
I got into this work because I wanted our kids to see a representation of themselves in the person teaching them. We can’t do that by all being the same cookie-cutter teacher – we have to all bring who we authentically are into our classrooms. Brooke and I are here to say: you can make it fun, you can make it your own, you can incorporate all those elements of being a great teacher while also being yourself. And you should!
Julie-Rose Gould is a first-grade teacher at AF Crown Heights Elementary.