On the Front Lines: New York City Public Schools
NCPERS On the Front Lines series is back as the global pandemic rages on. NCPERS is looking at public school teachers back in school during COVID. Our first installment brings us to New York City.
ON THE FRONT LINES: Rob Curry-Patel, New York City Public Schools
Teaching was never about money for Rob Curry-Patel, a New York City high school teacher. “We all get into teaching hoping to make a difference, not to make a paycheck,” he said in an interview. “It appeals to my ideals of service and equality.”
But now, 14 years into his career teaching 11th and 12th graders in a city-wide school for gifted and talented students on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Curry-Patel says one thing he is really grateful for is knowing he will have a pension and health benefits when he retires.
“As a 24-year-old teacher starting out, I had no clue about retirement, and didn't spend one minute planning for it,” he said. “When I realized how well others had negotiated for me, I was so proud to be a part of a union that has ensured teachers have security and a retirement to look forward to.”
Just as the United Federation of Teachers has gone above and beyond for him, Curry-Patel constantly goes the extra mile for his students. He teaches AP U.S. History to 11th graders and Economics to 12th graders at NEST+m, which allows students to move seamlessly from Kindergarten to 12th grade, and the Covid-19 pandemic has forced him to be creative and even push bureaucratic limits in order to give his students the best possible learning experience. Teachers have also had to adapt to uncertainty and sudden changes in direction from the New York City Department of Education (DOE) since all instruction was shifted to remote delivery in mid-March.
“Since we went remote, I have been offering live instruction, even when the DOE was discouraging us from doing that, and I have seen some great success from students,” Curry-Patel said.
When the pandemic took hold last spring, he was in the midst of preparing his 11th graders for the AP U.S. History exam, which was conducted nationwide on May 8. He was delighted when his students scored higher overall than previous classes. “It was a real testament to their effort,” he said proudly.
The experience also reinforced that while teaching students remotely “is not ideal, it is more manageable than I might have thought,” he said.
Teachers have become much more adept over the past eight months at using new technology to engage students in learning, he added. In the spring, teachers were being advised to avoid “synchronous learning,” meaning live online meetings with the whole class at the same time. Now it's the preferred approach, and “they are learning how to do remote class live with students.”
Because teachers are engaged in the development of young people, they are particularly concerned with the social-emotional trauma students are experiencing during a prolonged period of isolation. “Teachers are resolved to make remote learning work rather than just trying to make it to the finish line,” Curry-Patel said.
The compassion he brings to teaching his students also extends to his fellow teachers. As a member of the UFT's pension department, he is involved in educating members about their benefits. He has been trained in all details of the pension system.
And he practices what he preaches. In contrast to his early years as a teacher, when his pension “was the furthest thing from my mind,” Curry-Patel has maxed out his tax-deferred annuity contribution and developed his 20-year plan.
“I now talk to other UFT members about their pension options and help them plan for retirement,” he said. “It feels really rewarding when you can set a member at ease knowing they can have a financially secure retirement.”
He speaks of his profession with the excitement he felt as a 10th grader who realized he loved U.S. history and would like to teach it one day. “I love that I get to interact with people throughout my day, and help students learn and grow,” Curry-Patel said. “The work with excited students is possibly the greatest feeling you can get on a job. Like building something with your hands, it is really rewarding to see progress with your students.”
As a teacher, he absolutely considers his job a calling—a common theme among public servants who have accepted compensation that is low relative to the private sector in exchange for long-term job satisfaction and retirement security. “If I didn't think I was having a positive impact I wouldn't keep doing it,” he said.
You can read our May On the Front Line series: On the Front Lines: Seattle, On the Front Lines: Fairfax, VA, On the Front Lines: New York, On the Front Lines: Minnesota, On the Front Lines: Washington, and On the Front Lines: Texas.