Monday, November 15, 2010

The Inspiring Teacher Series: Interview with Paul Cohen


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...

Paul M. Cohen
High School Science Teacher
St. Francis Prep
Queens, NY


Bio
- Graduated from Queens College with an MS-Ed in Biology and Secondary Education
- Currently working on a chemistry degree at SUNY Old Westbury
- Teaching for 10 years. Six years at St. Francis Prep in Queens (The nation's largest catholic school and ground zero for the swine flu : 0)
- Retired from NYPD in 1997 as a Detective assigned to the Organized Crime Control Bureau due to line of duty injury

What inspired you to teach?
My inspiration to teach came from the most unlikeliest place. From Arnold Schwarzenegger. In or around 1990 I saw the movie kindergarten cop. I always liked kids and was involved in coaching little league baseball. Jokingly, I thought I would become a "kindergarten cop." I was injured in the line of duty in the mid 90's and my early retirement seemed imminent. I needed a plan. I thought back on becoming a teacher and decided to go for it. My initial choice of K-6 changed quickly as 1) I fell in love with science and 2) I actually did some student teaching in a k-6 environment. In a "life imitates art" moment, I walked into a kindergarten class as a substitute teacher and the kids burst into tears. I'm standing there with twenty 5-year olds in tears. Remembering how Arnold saved the day in the movie, I grabbed a school aid to watch the kids and ran to my car to retrieve some insect samples I prepared for an entomology unit I produced for college. The kids were instantly hooked. Moments later an entourage from the superintendents office walks in with press in tow and here I am, freaking out, but calmly talking to the kids about how many legs an insect has and how many shapes can we use to draw them. No amount of undercover police work can prepare you for that, but I too was hooked on teaching. I did, however, decide that high school was a better choice for me. Additionally, as a police officer, I often encountered kids who were lost and heading closer to jail than home. I felt as a teacher, if I could change the course for one kid then I've made a difference.

Tell us about your career prior to teaching. Any words of wisdom for people wanting to transition into a teaching career?
Prior to teaching I was a NYC police detective. I experienced all kinds of people and had all types of supervisors. Coming from a para-military background I was able to transition quickly and easily to the supervision style of academia. I was able to take orders and criticism with equal enthusiasm. I am not saying that as a teacher I agreed with, or even complied with, every order given. Nor did I accept all criticism. You don't survive on the street by not following your instincts. I learned to smile, nod and disregard that which I didn't feel comfortable with. That is the key to teaching. YOU must be comfortable with what you are doing. If not, the kids will see right through you and your effectiveness goes out the window. What works for me may not be what works for you. So, for those coming into the game late like I did: The late great martial artist Bruce Lee once said that when approaching a new master, one must show that he is willing to learn by coming with an empty cup. The idea being that a full cup can hold no more. An empty one can be filled with all that is useful. So, to all those new teachers, empty your cups and fill it with all you think useful and spill over all that doesn't help. Just one more thing - don't ever spill out in front of your supervisor. Smile, nod and quietly disregard!

What teaching methods are most helpful in guiding students towards their goals?
Educrats like to talk of innovative pedagogy, standards both national and local, multiple intelligences and a myriad of other strategies. I use what works for the class which can change from day to day and class to class and even minute to minute. The material dictates the type of lesson. I usually have a plan a, b and c for every unit. I won't stick with a workshop model if I detect it is not working for the material. I do believe firmly in discovery and problem solving learning. I often present some basic concepts and leave some obvious road signs out when I assign a new concept. When a person can put something together for themselves, they have an ownership that can't be delivered by another person. If they can claim ownership for the knowledge then they will want to know more, just to know why, not just to score well on a test.

What would you like to improve about your teaching?
I am always looking for improvements for my teaching. I view my skill set as a toolbox. If I am presented with another version or a new tool by a teacher or even a supervisor, I am always willing to try it out. New is not always the answer. We have a smartboard in every classroom in my school for enhanced presentations. It works great, but when the Internet goes out or when technology has a techno-fit, one best still have some chalk in the room.

What is the one thing you wish you'd known when you started your teaching career?
After taking about 20 credits of education courses not one of them truly prepares you for the day to day operation of a classroom. It is frightening when for the first time you enter that room and realize that you are in charge and all these faces are staring at you and expect you to do or say something. Be prepared! Classroom management issues are multiplied without good preparation. You must be everything to all students in that room. They will ask you things you can never be prepared for. You can't be prepared for all the extras that will go on. But of utmost importance is to get them seated and engaged as quickly as possible. Teenagers are self centered by nature and demand instant gratification. You must teach them to delay that hormonally driven order. The one thing I wish I had known before I began teaching is how much work it really is. No one provides you with lessons. You must do it all. You work through weekends, holidays and after school. And, the work keeps coming. Remember that you must decide how you will assess the work you give out. Learn to regulate the flow or you will drown yourself. That is the major cause of first year teacher burnout. This will, however, be the most rewarding and satisfying career you can ever imagine. For all the hard work and frustration you are paid back with the kind of unconditional love that is reserved for parents.

1 comment:

  1. From police to teaching, glad he answered for his true calling.

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