The Chicago Public-School Teacher Who Never Thought He’d End Up in a Classroom

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Kareem Sayegh, 25
Public-School Teacher
Chicago, Illinois

Growing up, the narrative in my household was you’re going to do something in the sciences. Most likely, you’re going to be a doctor. That’s kind of how I had structured my life. I never really thought about other career options. I definitely never thought about teaching.

I was studying physics at the University of Chicago, planning on applying to medical school. Towards the end of my senior year, I realized that I was no longer interested in pursuing math. I just hated everything I was doing. I had been a part of an organization called Peer Health Exchange where we went to schools in Chicago and taught health lessons. I decided that teaching might be something that I was interested in. Now I’m a ninth-grade math teacher at Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy on the South Side of Chicago. This is my fourth year.

My first year was horrible. I was so bad at the job. I was constantly frustrated because I was super inefficient. I was staying up until 1 a.m., waking up at 5:30 a.m., and just feeling like I was completely incapable of accomplishing anything. My second year, I had a chance to restart. I’m now basically obsessed with the profession. I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

I wake up at 5:30 in the morning. I have a 40-minute commute. I get to school somewhere between 6:45 a.m. and 7:20 a.m. I’ll usually take a little bit of time to situate myself and make sure my materials are ready and that whatever I need the kids to do, they’ll be able to do.

I have three different classes: an honors algebra 2 class, a regular algebra 2 class, and an honors college-algebra class. That means I have to have three different classes ready to go at the beginning of the day. I do most of my best planning on the weekends. There’s a lot of thinking about how to meet all of the standards, the things that students need to learn. I think about what activity or project or actions will get the kids there in the most efficient way possible without me necessarily having to write it all out on the board.

I think most of my students would describe my teaching style as very dynamic. It’s very responsive. Actually even my principal would say that. I’ll have a plan, but I circulate around the classroom a lot. I teach an hour-and-a-half-long block. I’m at the board for no more than ten minutes of the class. So kids are doing a lot of work. And I’m sort of coaching along the way. I try to check in with every kid every day about what they’re learning.

I have two periods at the beginning of the day. Then I have what’s called a “prep period.” During that time, I prepare for the following day. It’s also a time where I can pull students that I needed to talk to because they have lunch during my prep period. Sometimes I’ll have lunch detention for kids during that time.

That’s also when we have our teacher meetings, once a week. Sometimes we collaborate about exactly what activities our students are doing. We give the same assessments, and it’s actually kind of interesting when we can assess how our students did on the assessment. “Hey, Mr. Ramirez’ s kids did a lot better on this assessment than any of ours. What was he doing in class or how did he present this information such that his kids were so successful?

Any teacher will tell you: If you really really really tried to make up every single thing from scratch, you wouldn’t be able to do it. Creating a complete curriculum from scratch just isn’t feasible. In these meetings, we collaborate on the curriculum, and then we also think a little bit more big picture, like, what we want math to look like at our school, and we’ll have broader conversations, almost like the philosophy of teaching in the math department.

The most recent thing I’ve been learning a lot from my peers is how important writing is in the math classroom for retaining content and synthesizing content. I just started introducing journaling at the end of every class, just like four or five minutes of writing down what you learned that day. When students have to be metacognitive about their own learning then they actually learn the stuff on a deeper level.

My college algebra class is my most advanced class. I’m going over some pretty high-level stuff with them. [Laughs.] I had this week where they were just really making a lot of progress, and deeply understanding the material and blah blah blah. And then at the end of it I gave them this assessment. [Laughs.] Every single one of them bombed. They’re young kids, and it is hard. I think the failure was more from me, not them. I was not taking the accurate data in my class because I was under the impression that they were all just really mastering the material.

There’s a lot of social, emotional needs at my school that aren’t met because we don’t have enough resources to tackle all the different traumas that our students have experienced. There is just a lot of trauma in our building.

I know a number of my students who have lost a member of their family due to violence. I know a lot of students who have dealt with abuse in the household. A lot of things like that. I don’t like bringing it up because I think that’s the narrative people always get about students on the South Side of Chicago, and I want people to realize that these are super intelligent, super passionate, super dedicated students, and that painting these students with such broad strokes is often [more] a reflection of our desire to “other” people than it is a reflection of what’s really happening.

That narrative weirdly makes students from the South Side of Chicago seem like this totally different kind of person that is not relatable in any way. It doesn’t personalize them. It victimizes them as a group. And then they’re no longer people.

You have to know where people are at before you start trying to teach them about systems of equations. You can’t just expect them to come in, sit down, and do their work. You have to know them and understand what they’re going through. And know how much they’re sleeping and if they’re tired and if they’re hungry and if they’re maybe really excited today because something good happened.

After the election, they were upset. I have a lot of students who are undocumented or who have family members who are. I had kids come in and ask me, “I don’t know if we’re going to be safe. I don’t know what’s going to happen to my family or if we’re going to get split up.” I think talking about it was the only thing that we could do at the time. Since then, we’re kind of spending some time at our school working on actual plans and trying to get legal aid for families that need it.

You gain trust and respect from your students how you gain trust and respect with anybody. First of all, it takes time. Second of all, you can’t be a pushover but you can’t really be an asshole either. There’s a lot of situations where a kid will be doing something wrong, and I’ll very authoritatively let that student know that they need to go in the hall.

The conversation that you have after has to be restorative. Asking them why they did that. Making sure that they have a voice at the same time you make sure that there’s some sort of order in your classroom. Making kids feel safe, like they can come into that classroom and that that classroom is safe. That’s another thing. I make sure that there’s an equity of voice in the classroom. Students don’t use derogatory language with each other.

Even calling somebody “stupid” is a big deal. The first time it happens I stop class. If a kid says something particularly hurtful, sometimes they get put in the front of the classroom and we have a conversation as a class about it. It just doesn’t happen after the first couple of times.

I don’t want to stress the kids out, but sometimes you have to make them realize that some things aren’t okay. I do feel sort of hypocritical because I will call my friends stupid. But given how bad some people’s math anxiety is — they get called “stupid” and they don’t want to try again. If you get called stupid and you’re already really insecure, whatever you’re talking about, that’s like really really really bad. It’s not really like, oh I’m out for drinks with one of my friends and I call them silly. It’s very very different from that. And it’s very sacred.

I feel like everybody deserves a first-class education. Our kids are dope. The coolest thing is seeing kids who have dreams and who are working really hard to make those things happen. I have a senior this year who’s dead set on going to medical school and asked me to give her a calc textbook and a bio textbook. And we’re just working through them to get her ready for her college classes. I have a kid who’s really into coding. She gets fourth period off sometimes, so she comes and visits my class. And instead of doing the math problems, she tries to write programs. These kids, they just figure out what they want to do and then if they’re given the resources they need it’s crazy where they go with it.

You obviously see all of the discussion about teachers being underpaid and undervalued, and that stuff is all true. Those feelings do exist. But I also remember that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world because I have a decently stable job where I’m actually doing something useful every single day. I know a lot of people who make a lot more money than I do who I guess have more existential angst because they’re doing fine on the outside, they’re struggling to attach meaning to what they do. It’s always interesting to hear people who got their job because of the pay, but they’re trying as hard as they can to attach some sort of greater significance to it. I feel bad for people like that. I don’t have to do all that mental gymnastics.

This job gives me an opportunity to be around a lot of amazing people. My peers are incredible. They’re all super hardworking, super thoughtful, super aware of the world. I think it draws a certain type of person to stay in that atmosphere where it’s always an insane mess — it’s so messy. But you just have so many passionate people who care about what they do and who care about the future of the country, not just teaching their classes.

There’s a ton of bullshit. Educators and students are the pawns that the politicians get to play with. People blame the situation in Illinois on the governor, they blame it on the mayor, on Congress, on the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, or on the teachers union. At the end of the day, teachers and students are getting hurt pretty regularly. And the people doing the blaming are not.

You’ve heard that thing, “Those that can’t do, teach.” And it’s totally totally false. I want people who are in college and think that maybe teaching is beneath them to know that it’s a really incredible profession. If you’re somebody who thinks and wants to work hard and wants to work in the most meaningful and important profession in the country then you should think about teaching.

The Teacher Who Never Thought He’d End Up in a Classroom