Ashley Navalany, 7th Grade History at Patrick Healy Middle School, East Orange
“In high school I wasn’t the best student. I was very defiant, and my parents sent me to boarding school. I remember one of my teachers saying that the reason she went home at night and drank was because of her students. None of the teachers built a connection with me, and I felt like if they had done so, maybe I wouldn’t have been such a defiant teen and gone through such rough things and been sent away. But having teachers like that woman, who didn’t try to build that connection and said harsh things, made me say to myself, ‘I want to be a teacher and build students up rather than tear them down, and not make them feel belittled.’ I just knew I could be in her place and do things differently.
I have always been good with kids; I have been babysitting since I was 12. I took a few years off after high school, and then got an Associate’s in Early Childhood. I wanted to be a middle or high school teacher, so I went to Rutgers in Newark, and I enrolled in their Urban Teacher Education Program. After graduation, I worked in Trenton, Newark, and now I am in East Orange.
Where I come from in Freehold Township, the schools were funded. But where I am teaching now, I am buying everything myself, getting all of the supplies, and a lot of things don’t work. Realizing where these kids come from, it is nothing I could imagine. A lot of them live in shelters, or are in gangs or have been raped: a lot of trauma. It was hard for me when I first started because I couldn’t fathom going home and not having my parents put food on the table. But these kids’ parents struggle to put food on their tables. My job, besides teaching Social Studies, is building their character and self-esteem, and helping them to see that they do not have to be stuck in that life, to encourage them to get a good education. I talk to them about what they can do in their community to make it better, to promote less gang violence and guns.
What keeps me motivated and from getting discouraged from all that the kids face is the kids themselves. I need to be there for them, to be their ally. I want to be there because I feel they need somebody who is an advocate for them.
In the first week I do ice-breakers with them. I write up all of these questions like, ‘What is your favorite subject in school?” and, “What is the best gift you have ever gotten?’ and, ‘who do you consider your hero?’ And we go around in a circle and it’s about building a community with them. It is about getting to know them and build their trust. We are like a family in the classroom for that year, and I tell them I want to know them, what they like, what their learning styles are. And the kids pick up on it. They really do.
A lot of the kids who don’t want to eat lunch in the cafeteria come to me in my classroom and have lunch with me. Most of them are boys who don’t quite fit in. In my school there are a lot of fights, so by them having lunch with me, it keeps them out of trouble. I try with all the kids to build a connection with them. They need to know they are worthy.
I just remember as a kid, as I was making bad decisions, deep down inside I knew that wasn’t the right path for me. I knew I wanted to help other people and make a difference in other people’s lives. I knew I was raised better than I was living, and one day I said, ‘I am going to do what is right.’ And here I am living the life I wanted back in the day when I was getting in trouble. So when the kids I have are getting into trouble, I can relate to them in a very real way, and it makes a difference for them, it really does.