My “why”

Why I teach high school physics and computer science in New York City

A selfie from April when I returned to my classroom after over a year of teaching remotely

I am proud to say I earned tenure this year. It’s in my nature to be always reflecting, but the tenure process catalyzed a deeper articulation of my “why.” Here is why I do the work, and why I love the work.

In 2017, I left a successful career in finance to join the NYC Teaching Fellows program. It was not an easy decision: I liked my hedge fund job, I valued my colleagues, and I was constantly growing. I had learned to ideate, strategize, and get things done. The money wasn’t bad either. One skill I honed in the finance sector was detecting the “click” between a person and their job, whether for myself or for someone I had hired. Over time, I stopped feeling my click with the industry. I was neither inspired nor inspiring as I had once been. It was time for a change.

I had always thought I would be a teacher one day. Growing up, I was the eldest cousin and self-appointed “teacher” when we played school for fun. I loved orchestrating an “aha” moment for someone else. The main reason I didn’t become a teacher right after college was that I (thought I) already knew what it would be like. An analogy: when it comes to dating, one may choose to play the field before settling down, so as to avoid the nagging “what if” feeling years later. This is what I did with my career. I had no idea what it’d be like to work for a private company, and I wanted to find out. It was a great experience, and I’m grateful for it. But now I’m where I belong.

I grew up in the ’90s in white suburban New Jersey, to parents who reinforced the (false) notion that America had moved beyond race. I was raised with the (again, false) story that racial discrepancies in societal outcomes can be fully explained by income disparities. I attended a segregated university and then for years worked in financial institutions where people of color were only seen in lower-status roles as janitors or drivers. I saw it happening but didn’t engage with it. I hadn’t thought very hard about race.

About 6 years ago, my husband (also white, also from suburban New Jersey) told me I needed to learn more about race in America. He gave me a copy of Between the World and Me, which was the beginning of my own exploration of race and privilege. From that point, I consumed every book I was recommended, from novels like Americanah to nonfiction like The New Jim Crow to self examination books like White Fragility. For the first time in my life I started talking about race with friends and loved ones. I started wondering why so few of my closest friends are black. I started attending every race-related workshop I could find. I started teaching about race in the classroom.

In a workshop I facilitated recently, a participant asked me why I’m so bothered by the whiteness of the mainstream science curriculum. She pointed out that our students need both mirrors and windows: so isn’t it a good thing that our science curriculum provides them with many wonderful windows? My response was yes, windows are great, but our students need both mirrors and windows. As a white woman, I grew up with plenty of mirrors and not enough windows. My students of color see windows all the time; do they really need more? How can they make meaning, find their way in this world, and self-actualize when our curricula lack meaningful mirrors? It’s incredibly challenging work, fraught with nuance of authority and positionality, but it’s work we absolutely must do.

I love teaching at the High School for Climate Justice. My students are incredible, and I’m here to help them discover how much they’re capable of. A characteristic example: my heart broke the other day when a 9th grader who’d had deep insights all year told me that he knew he wasn’t smart because he failed the Gifted & Talented exam many years ago and was tracked into a “lower level” school. We started talking about about grit, growth mindset, and stereotype threat. I shared with him some books by Carol Dweck, Stephen Jay Gould, and others. I have become increasingly convinced that intelligence is a habit, not a gene. It’s hard to become great unless you really, truly, know deep down that you can achieve your dreams.

Over the past four years, my students have pushed me even further in this direction. During my first year of teaching, students did a lot of “doing.” They completed countless worksheets and got plenty of “right” answers — and they often had fun doing it, too — but they didn’t take much away from the experience. (I know this because I just taught AP Physics to a group of seniors who had my class back in 9th grade, and it’s clear they don’t remember much from my class. If my student doesn’t remember basic concepts from my class three years later, then I failed them.)

Two years ago, I noticed that my upperclass physics students were hyper-focused on finishing their worksheets: they wanted so badly to answer all the questions that they would choose to copy answers from peers without pausing to ask questions, even if they knew they didn’t understand the material. One day, I paused the lesson and facilitated a full-class discussion about it. The students all agreed (a) that it’s more important to understand something than it is to write down all the answers, (b) that they felt comfortable asking questions and admitting confusion in my class, (c ) that they knew they’d have time later to review the answer key and revise their work, and (d) that their grade in my class would probably end up being higher if they took the time to understand what they were writing down. And yet: their drive to finish the worksheet before the bell was a habit they couldn’t break. With my principal’s permission and the class’s approval, I promised every student a grade of 100% for the marking period, with only one condition: they needed to tell me each week (either verbally or in written form) whether they felt like they were learning, and they needed to tell me what they wanted us to change for the next week. I structured class time the same way as before, but I no longer collected the worksheets and quizzes. Instead, students were invited to compare their answers to an answer key and ask questions if they wanted to. For the whole marking period, my knowledge of their progress was only formative and informal. I was surprised by the result: most of the class still couldn’t escape their completionist mentality. The majority of students still tried to finish their worksheet by the end of the period. They knew what was happening, and we discussed it together: they knew that no one would see their worksheet. They said they wanted to make meaning rather than just getting the “right” answers. But something about the existence of the worksheet made them want to fill it out completely, even when they knew that doing so impeded their learning.

I don’t make worksheets anymore. I now use mostly slides, asking fewer and more complex open-ended questions that have many entry points. My classes now move slower and deeper, in part because of the pandemic but also because I’m improving as a teacher. When I ask my students “What are you proud of in physics class?” almost all of them have an answer. I take it as high praise when students tell me my class feels special because the work is never busywork.

To help students self-actualize, I bring my own full self to the room. I tell students about my impostor syndrome and my failures. I help them see that they may feel confused and insecure, but they’re not alone. Life is about leaning into the discomfort, forming connections, and growing as a community. I have learned how to talk with students about the privileges and challenges I face as a white woman in a position of authority before them. I try to be humble, and I show them the power of owning up to — and growing from — my mistakes. I share with them my love of science, and I talk about our obligation to use the tools of science to build a better tomorrow. If anyone is capable of saving our future, it’s my students.



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Elissa Levy

I teach physics and computer science in East Harlem, New York. I aim to engage.