Herald Head of the Class: Sara Perrone, East Rockaway Junior Senior High School, Grade 9 English

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Why did you become a teacher?
My mother is a teacher, and our weekly field trips to the library inspired my love of reading. From a young age, I've always been intrigued as to how authors use language for a purpose. I've always wanted to share that love of language and reading with others--for them to see how the power of a story and words can shape and transform our beliefs.

Tell us about a teacher that inspired you as a student.
My 10th grade English teacher knew that I was taking a risk by enrolling in her honors-level course. At the time, I didn't think I was capable of doing well in the class. I told her so during the first few weeks of September after struggling to explicate "Macbeth" monologues. Her investment in my work and my self-worth gave me the confidence to push myself. She saw potential in me, and she took the time to talk to me about it, and I'll be forever grateful that she told me I had talents and promise.

What did you experience or learn about teaching—yourself, your students, the process, etc.—during the pandemic that you think you will carry forward?

I learned that I am nothing without the relationships I form with my students. During the 2019-2020 school year, the switch to virtual learning was difficult because it was unexpected and there were so many variables - but at least I had six months in a classroom with these students ahead of time. I knew who would be extra lonely, who would thrive in an independent setting, who might have more trouble learning from home because of a tough home life.

But this year? I had to start from scratch and form those relationships with students I'd never seen and might never see in person. I had to learn to read their understanding through the lines of a Google chat and not just based on a weak smile or a passing comment made in the hallway. Basically, the pandemic has taught me that the content matters little if the relationships aren't there.

What's the most memorable thing a student has said to you?

"Ms. Perrone, I thought about what we were talking about in class, and so I went home and read more about it..." When a student tells you that your lesson made them go beyond the confines of a typical school day, you know you've been successful. 

What has been your toughest challenge as a teacher so far?

My toughest challenge as a teacher comes with addressing issues of inequity in the books we read, in the news we hear, and in the public school system itself. Exposing students to social injustice in the stories we read yet hoping to inspire them to change the world is a heavy task. Also, on a lighter note...phones. Phones in the classroom might be the death of me. 

What has been your proudest moment as a teacher so far?

Seeing students who are differently-abled conquer and overcome obstacles. I have a daughter with Down syndrome, and my experience as her mother has transformed my heart in ways I cannot explain. Seeing a student who took longer to learn a skill or took a different path to get to an end goal finally cross the finish line gives me joy beyond all else.

What surprised you the most when you first started teaching?

What surprised me about teaching is how little of my day I spent thinking about actual literature or any state standards. Teaching for me is about 10% novels, grammar, and writing—and 90% psychology. I signed up to be a teacher because I wanted to literature and grammar, and I ended up teaching humans with complex backgrounds, identities, and talents. My love of the English language means nothing if I can't connect with my students.

How do you keep students engaged and interested?

The best way to keep students engaged is to make them the center of every lesson: "What do you think, Sean? How would you react in this situation, Steph?" Students need to know that their thoughts matter and they need to see the relevancy in the skills you are teaching--both the immediate payoff and the long-term importance. It also helps if you can keep up with social media and make a cringy TikTok reference or two.

What is an aspect of being a teacher that you think most people outside the profession don't know or fully understand?

The emotional investment of our job is far beyond what most people imagine. I hope parents know that a child's success brings us unimaginable joy, and that a child's struggle brings us frustration and disappointment as well. Our jobs don't end when the bell rings at the end of the day - of course, we're doing the basics - checking emails, grading essays, and planning; but we're also thinking of ways to motivate that student who's been lost, watching a commercial and being inspired by rhetorical devices, and continuing our own educational experiences to ensure student success and joy in the classroom.

What advice do you have for aspiring teachers?

Practical advice? Stay organized and be thoughtful with your planning; try to anticipate potential areas of confusion for your students as you are creating your lessons. This will save you time and energy spent re-teaching.

Inspirational advice? A wise person once told me that I should always consider my mindset when I feel down or stressed. Instead of saying, "I have to grade these papers, I have to spend hours planning, I have to deal with...", replace "have to" with "get to." That quick shift of mindset, saying "I get to grade these papers, I get to spend time planning, etc.," will remind you of the honor and privilege it is to be a teacher.

What is the most important thing you hope a student takes away from your class?

I hope my students remember that words matter. Will someone be quizzing you in 20 years about what happens in Act 3 of Romeo and Juliet? No. Will your future employer require you to write a Regents essay before hiring you? Likely not. But will the tone you choose impact the connections and relationships you forge? Absolutely. Do your words have the power to hurt or heal others? Without question. I hope they remember the beauty and power of language. 

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