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Carolyn Garcia is a seventh-grade math teacher at Abington Avenue School in Newark.

Carolyn Garcia is a seventh-grade math teacher at Abington Avenue School in Newark.

Feeling ‘cheated’ by her own schooling, this award-winning N.J. math teacher tried to become the teacher she never had

When Carolyn Garcia tells her students at Abington Avenue School in Newark that they have what it takes to succeed, she is speaking from experience.

“I went into school not knowing a lick of English,” said Garcia, who teaches seventh-grade math at Abington Avenue, where nearly one in five students last year was still learning to speak English.

Garcia grew up in Jersey City, where she graduated from a public high school before heading to Montclair State University. Once there, she realized that all her hard-won accomplishments in high school had still left her trailing peers with more privileged upbringings. She struggled especially with writing and was assigned a tutor.

But when she decided to pursue teaching, she saw that her hardships were also an advantage. She would be able to connect with students from backgrounds similar to hers in a way that many of her peers might not be able.

“I felt like I could do better” than some of the other aspiring teachers, Garcia told Chalkbeat. “I know that sounds a little full of myself, but I really felt like I could do it better — and I needed to do it better.”

After college, Garcia taught at Robert Treat Academy, a charter school in Newark’s North Ward. For the past four years, she has worked at Abington Avenue, a traditional school in the North Ward. Last year, the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education honored her efforts to help students with disabilities learn alongside their peers in general-education classrooms.

“She’s made a home in her classroom,” Abington Avenue Principal Nelson Ruiz said in a video last year profiling the honorees. “Students are challenged. Expectations are high.”

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

When was the moment you decided to become a teacher?

Entering my second semester [of college], the realization gradually dawned on me that my high school years had ill-prepared me for higher education.

On paper, I had been successful the previous four years. That success, however, never really required much effort.

The acknowledgment that I had once not been sufficiently challenged left me feeling cheated. But it also fueled a sense of urgency to demand better of others.

After many conversations with friends and family, the decision to become an educator of the kind I never had slowly presented itself to me. Not only would I educate students, regardless of any individual need, but I would do it in a setting that resembled the one I had grown up in.

What made you decide to teach math?

I think this goes back to my language barrier.

Math was always easier for me because there’s only one type of language — math is universal. So it was easier for me to grasp. I felt like it was one of my strengths growing up.

You were recognized last year for creating an “inclusive” classroom. What does that mean?

Inclusive education has meant ensuring that all students, regardless of ability, have an equal opportunity to develop and grow.

This means giving every student the opportunity to contribute to the learning process by cultivating an environment where they feel invited to display their knowledge.

Do your students come into class with different skill levels?

I would estimate that about 30 percent of my students are below grade level; so that ranges somewhere from fourth to sixth grade. A good 50 percent of students are at grade level. And the rest are above.

It becomes a challenge, especially when you’re in a grade where you start teaching more abstract mathematics and some of the students are struggling to understand what a fraction even is and where it belongs on a number line. So it takes a lot of conversation, a lot of reteaching, in order to get them at the level where they need to be.

How do you reach students where they are?

From the moment my students walk into the classroom, my goal is to learn what they know and how to best accommodate their individual learning styles.

Breaking the class up into smaller groups according to learning styles allows me to employ a wider range of instruction methods all at once.

One group will watch the lesson via laptop, pausing and rewinding if they miss any information, while I dictate a more complex assignment to another group. The rotations will differ from one day to the next as they are tailored to my students’ needs.

How do you motivate students who enter your class behind their peers?

Many students come in having grappled unsuccessfully with mathematics in the past and have been left with the attitude that they “just don’t get it.”

Reversing this disposition requires patiently revisiting their missteps while reminding them along the way that all accomplished people — be they athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs or mathematicians — once started out as complete beginners.

At the beginning of the year, “Inspirational Math Week” provides students the opportunity to work on various activities that serve, in part, as stepping stones where students understand that there are no such things as “math brains.”

The students come up with things that mathematicians should do to be successful. It’s just changing their mindset so that they don’t say, “I have a math brain” or “I don’t have a math brain.” It’s like, “Here’s what you expect a mathematician to do. Pick one today and focus on that.”

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

With so many entry points for students, geometry has always been a treat to teach.

I’ve always liked to start by instructing the class to find the volumes of pyramids, cylinders, and spheres. [But] I have had to reconsider elements of my instruction in order to best serve my students.

I came upon a video in which an instructor was using water to help visualize the volume of a sphere. I set out to try a version of this in my classroom.

Using some transparent and representative three-dimensional shapes, I had my grouped students fill them with sand. The results were a teacher’s delight: a classroom fully engaged as they filled the various shapes, and coming away equipped with a hands-on, practical understanding of volume.

How do you connect with your students in and out of the classroom?

My success in this area has come about by trying to go the extra mile to learn about their home lives, in addition to forming mentoring relationships with them.

Something as simple as creating a Wiffle ball club after school graduated from teaching them the basics of the game to learning about the importance of dedication, consistency, and respect. The bond we developed was of a different character than the one we shared in the classroom.

Before long, more hobbies followed: robotics club, cheerleading, and even the art of Claymation!

Tell us more about coaching cheerleading.

I’d never done cheerleading in my life. I’d always done softball and volleyball. But my students … came and asked me — we have that kind of relationship — and I couldn’t say no.

So we were learning together. We were learning routines, terminology, rules.

I found myself liking it because it changes the personalities of some of the students. We had the first boy cheerleader in the city of Newark competing. And it became a trend where the other schools started to pick up on boys.

It was so exciting because many of the children that I work with — especially the boys I was working with — struggled behaviorally and academically. It gave them an outlet. Even some of the girls too. It made coming to school a little bit more meaningful.

What part of your job is most rewarding?

The most rewarding part of my job is the feedback I receive from students once they have left my class.

One parent whose daughter and son I once taught has kept in contact through the years. She sends pictures of the two during holidays and different award ceremonies.

Last summer, I was invited to the eighth-grade graduation party of her son.

I learned that I was the surprise guest for many of my previous students, who were all in attendance. The day was full of reminiscing about all the unforgettable classroom conversations we had once shared, how we used to deal with the inevitable drama-of-the-week, or when a student’s funny remark would force me to “break character” and respond in kind.

They expressed how much these moments meant to them and how they wished they had more teachers in their lives who made them feel like their voices and feelings mattered.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

The best advice I ever received with respect to teaching was, “Don’t reinvent the wheel!”

Learn from experienced teachers who have worked hard year after year to develop the most effective insights into the education of students. However, it’s important to remember to learn from those who are new to the field as well.

It’s important to talk to one another, observe each other’s classes, and support each other’s ideas. I’ve found that the best strategies I’ve used in my classroom have developed through collaborations with colleagues.

I would give the same advice to all teachers, regardless of experience.