Friday, May 7, 2010

The Inspiring Teacher Series: Interview with Barry Hantman

Welcome to The Inspiring Teacher Series - a tribute to inspirational K-12 teachers and college professors, and what we can learn from them and each other about the craft of teaching. Now let's meet...

Barry Hantman
Homebound Instruction Teacher
Queens, NY

Barry Hantman won his school spelling bee in 5th, 6th, and 7th grades. His inexorable decline began shortly thereafter and he’s been trying to make a comeback since 1973. Barry graduated from Bayside High School (Go Commodores!), Binghamton State University (Go Bearcats!) and received his teaching Masters degree from NYU (Go . . . ?). Barry has worked as a Home Instruction teacher for the NYC Department of Education since 1984. Relevant quote: “If Perry perceives me as an inspiring educator, I fear we may already be in trouble.”

What inspired you to teach?
Teaching was not a calling that beckoned me. I had always been interested in politics and government (so-called “political science”), thus I’d assumed I wanted to practice law. But the dull reality of law school inspired me to find a better way. I don’t believe in reincarnation so if I only have one life to live, I decided it would not be as an attorney. Since my parents were teachers, the field of education seemed like a natural option to explore.

Please explain the “day in a life” of a homebound instruction teacher.
A homebound instruction teacher educates students who cannot attend school for physical or emotional reasons. A typical case is a broken ankle/leg for about 7 weeks, but I’ve had students recuperating for months from heart surgery, a kidney transplant, leukemia, etc. Or a pupil might get expelled from school and is at home awaiting placement at a new school. Once I even taught a youngster in the Witness Protection program! I work with students from grades 7-12, but occasionally teach even kindergarteners or first graders (and have proudly taught 3 such children to read). Not only do I instruct students of various ages and home environments, but I also teach kids from the most diverse possible ethnic backgrounds. I work in Queens County, New York City – according to the US Census, the most diverse area on the planet!

A Home Instruction teacher is like a basketball point guard – you must know when to speed things up (such as reviewing for state exams) and when to slow down the pace (at times that a child isn’t feeling well, whether physically or emotionally). You start to get adept at readings faces and moods; within 20 seconds of walking through the door you can usually tell how productive the day is going to be.

I love my job but of course, it has its own peculiar set of hassles. Driving from apartment to apartment means finding several parking spots a day, no easy feat in congested parts of the city. I might only find a one hour meter but the lesson is for another half-hour. Then I have to remember to go back downstairs to feed the meter or I’ll return to find a nice orange parking ticket slapped on my windshield. Building elevators are frequently out so I have to walk up and down several flights of stairs. And driving in the snow is a hassle. I have a fuel-efficient Nissan Sentra that squeezes into tight parking spots but it doesn’t like heavy snowfalls.

What teaching methods are most helpful in guiding students toward their goals?
I have the luxury of working one-to-one so I try to take full advantage. I assess student strengths/weaknesses in order to focus on areas of concern. Many classroom pupils who failed a course or state exam and now must retake it will suddenly flourish with their own tutor. It’s incredible what a difference the extra private attention makes. This is true for the math and creative writing instruction I give but also for the tennis and guitar lessons I arranged for my son; there is no comparison between one-to-one and thirty-to-one.

I also utilize what’s around me. I scan a home’s walls and tables for homework essay ideas. For example, a Sikh student’s apartment displayed a large drawing of the Golden Temple at Amritsar. I asked Chami to write about the Temple’s significance and to outline some of his faith’s tenets. I read Chami’s essay the next morning while sipping chai tea his mother had prepared. Another pupil’s family were Afghan refugees. They had an enlarged photo of the father in between President George W. Bush and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. Detailing that treasured photo was Shaheera’s writing assignment. Even the smell of a delicious meal being prepared could very well lead to a recipe request for homework (and to a free sample for the teacher).

What skills should a teacher training program emphasize? De-emphasize?
The most critical factors can’t be taught – intelligence (both IQ and even more importantly, EQ – emotional intelligence), motivation, creativity, sense of humor, and character. But all those qualities can be enhanced. I believe the best teacher training involves hands-on experience mirroring the actual job you seek. My teaching Masters degree courses were a joke, consisting of either theoretical jargon or somewhat interesting concepts that I could’ve easily grasped on my own. I would eliminate such grad school requirements and instead mandate a two year “student teacher” training program in classrooms led by outstanding educators.

What would you like to improve about your teaching?
Nothing. I’m done. Actually, my view is that as soon as anyone in any profession grows overconfident, it’s the start of that person’s downfall. The ancient Greeks were right – we must guard against complacency (hubris). I’m still always learning from my students, National Geographic, the Science section of The NY Times, museum exhibits, The History Channel, etc.

What is the one thing you wish you’d known when you started your teaching career?
I’ll just relate the sage advice of a retiring veteran homebound teacher fondly known as Bamby. At the annual end of June luncheon, Bamby was called to the microphone to deliver a few parting gems of wisdom. Perhaps he would reflect upon the meaning of his 35 years in the program. As Bamby cleared his throat, we all attentively leaned forward. His gaze met ours. Then Bamby uttered his immortal final words as a Home Instruction teacher: “In the winter, park in the sun. And in the summer, park in the shade. I’m moving South tomorrow. Bye.”


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