Channeling My Inner Norma


In my first year of teaching, I was never observed by an administrator. I started to think that not being observed might be a good thing, as I was struggling mightily to keep my classroom under control.

I taught 8th grade English in a public middle school in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The school itself was struggling and had been placed on a state list for low student achievement. The principal and assistant principal were both brand new in their jobs and in hindsight, I have empathy for the difficult situation they were in (although I certainly had no empathy at the time). I got used to the idea that administrators were people who helped when things went badly—for example, when a discipline problem forced me to call them and get help. Maybe it was better they weren’t visiting, I thought. What would they see in my classroom? That I was a failure?

Continue reading

55-25 and my 40th Birthday

Julie Nariman PrincipalThe 55-25 retirement option

In my third year of teaching when I was 24 years old, there was an option to sign up for “55-25.”  “55-25” was an early retirement option for educators, which meant that once you turned 55 and had been teaching in the system for 25 years, you could retire early and receive 50% of your average salary.

I remember several veteran teachers asking me if I had signed up for 55-25.  I barely registered their question. I figured, there’s no way I’ll still be in education in 25 years.  Continue reading

I’ll give you my right arm

wp-1486921143207.jpgAwa sobbed in our office.  “Can’t you just let me try?” she pleaded.

Awa, an 11th grader who came from Senegal in 9th grade, was begging to take the New York State English Regents exam in January.  We told her she’d take it in June when she had completed the coursework for the exam.  She left in tears.  

When I started our school in 2011,* I thought that the experience of taking a state exam was so valuable that it was worth letting a student try, even if they weren’t 100% prepared.   Continue reading

Hot chocolate on a Saturday

hot-chocolate“We just cancelled Saturday school,” said an assistant principal from another school as he walked to his car.  Sleet pecked us as we paused to talk in front of our shared Bronx campus.  “Only two kids showed up, and most of the teachers had to call out because of the roads.” 

So to cancel or not to cancel?  As a principal, I normally don’t have this power, and the mayor of New York City decides whether or not to cancel school.  However, this was Saturday school, which we start running in December to give students extra tutoring before January exams, and it was my call.   Continue reading

Miss, I’m in love


“Oh, miss, I’m in love.  I fell in love yesterday,” said Mariana.

“Yesterday was the best day of my life,” added Besa.

The two girls were sauntering to their science class.  Mariana is an 11th grader who arrived from Dominican Republic three years ago, while Besa arrived  from Albania last September.  In speaking about their experience the day before, they transformed from normal teenagers trying to look bored, to human beings inspired about life. Continue reading

Be like Omolaja

wpid-wp-1446810698816.jpgMr. Omolaja is a presence.*

The other day, I was in the cafeteria with Mr. Omolaja, and our radar went to Manuel, a student with  his pants halfway down his thighs.  He was slouching.

Mr. Omolaja gestured for Manuel to come over. Manuel ambled over cowboy-style, the only option for walking given the level of his pants.

Mr. Omolaja gestured to his own belt, which was at his waist.

“Manuel, pull your pants up,” he said.  “Be like Omolaja.” Continue reading

I thanked my mother for giving birth to me

9663905925_279563aa18_o“When I was in high school, I saw a woman give birth.”

Alex is my hairdresser.  He attended a New York City public high school in the 80s which had an exceptional program for students interested in the medical field.  Teachers leading the program taught high level biology and anatomy courses, and organized field trips to hospitals, research labs, universities.

“We were just in high school, but our teacher took us to the maternity ward of a hospital and told them we were medical students, which in a way was true.  We found this woman who was about to give birth, and we asked if we could watch it.  She said, ‘Sure.’   Continue reading