Being Ms. Cardinal

“Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best they can possibly be.” -Rita Pierson

On August 31, I’ll be starting my third year of being Ms. Cardinal. In July of 2018, I was hired by Uncommon Schools Inc. to be a 2nd grade teacher.

Uncommon Schools Inc. is a chain of charter schools across Brooklyn, Newark and Boston that caters to low-income areas. Their mission is to get children who are born into the poverty cycle to get to and through college in order to break that cycle. Uncommon Schools Inc. truly is a chain of unordinary (or uncommmon) schools. Their teachers use very strict, though effective, methods in their classrooms in order to give structure to their students’ educational experience. Learning to teach in such a specific way is oftentimes a stressful, but usually rewarding, experience.

My first year of teaching was interesting and very, very challenging. I loved being a teacher, but I didn’t feel like working in an elementary school was the right fit for me. Fortunately, Uncommon Schools allowed me to transfer to Brownsville Collegiate Middle School, where I currently teach 7th grade English. Teaching middle school sounds terrible to most people, but I actually love working with moody pre-teens!

Over the summer, a new Instagram account was created where past Uncommon teachers or students could publicly express their issues with the charter school chain. I read all of them. I sadly agreed with a lot of the complaints that were posted, and it made me question whether or not my position was right for me. After reflection, I decided that teaching with Uncommon Schools was still the best place I could be, and so I chose to continue teaching at BVC.

Why did I choose to stay? Below is my “why.”

My Background:

I’m from a small, suburban town in Indiana. The population of my hometown consists mostly of white families. My relatively large graduating class only had a handful of students that were POC. As a child, my father was an OBGYN. I never wanted for anything. Even my friends were considered to be in upper-middle class families. I never truly saw or felt poverty.

After my parents got divorced, my mom went to college and eventually went on to get her Master’s degree in education. After my mom finished schooling, I didn’t know many people in my family that hadn’t gotten a college degree. Going to college was expected for my family and for most families in my hometown.

Since I was raised in a very white, mostly christian atmosphere, going away to college and studying abroad introduced me to different cultures, religions and ethnicities, which I believe was a very important time in my life.

Why I’m an English Teacher:

At a very young age, I expressed interest in writing stories and poetry, which my family encouraged. My mother used to buy me blank hard-cover books to write stories and draw illustrations in. Writing and reading were always passions of mine. I also was known amongst my group of friends as being the “grammar police.” I’m surprised that they stuck it out and stayed friends with me after all of the times I corrected their speech!

Along with my overall interest in the English language, I’ve always loved to learn anything I could. I also did well in school. I could honestly be a student forever if that were a possibility. School has been a place of joy for me 90% of the time. I know that I’m a minority here, but I hope to one day change a student’s mindset about school. I want to show my students that reading, writing and learning in general can be fun!

My great grandad Jackson has been an inspiration to me as well.  He spoke fluent French, taught French and AP English at the high school in my hometown, ran the high school newspaper and even worked for the local newspaper. Almost every idea I came up with for future careers was influenced by him in some way: author, French translator, journalist, editor and more of the like. However, I always refused to say that I would be a teacher. Along with grandad Jackson, most of my family members are teachers or work in education. I didn’t want to be like everyone else, until I stumbled upon a job application for Uncommon Schools.

Why I Chose Uncommon Schools:

Being an Uncommon teacher gives me a sense a purpose. Teaching anywhere is important work, but teaching at schools in low-income communities is even more crucial. My first year with Uncommon opened my eyes to the reality of poverty and the social divide between whites and people of color. I felt the necessity of creating change in the education system and the urgency to do so. I am aware of the privilege I have as white woman and I want to use that privilege to make a difference, no matter how small. I see how much the kids in these schools need a stable teacher, or simply even another stable adult outside of home, that shows them love and respect and raises their confidence so they can succeed.

Why I’m still Teaching at Uncommon:

After reading the Instagram posts that I mentioned earlier over the summer, I questioned if the work I was doing actually was good work.  One day while I scrolling through these posts, I was interrupted by a phone call from a student: Dawein. He called me just to talk and to ask me a couple of questions, and after we hung up I realized how important our work at Uncommon truly is.

Dawein came into BVC in 6th grade from a public school, at a pre-k reading level. I still cannot understand how a child can get by in elementary school without the ability to read, or more importantly, how a teacher can let that slide. Because of my experience teaching reading mastery, I got the opportunity to work with him all year on his decoding and comprehension skills. By the end of January, Dawein had mastered his first grade sight words. The day he passed the quiz, I broke out in tears in front of him and he hugged me with a huge smile on his face. Afterward, his confidence grew so much that he volunteered to read aloud in his performing arts class. He never would have chosen to read in front of his classmates before.

I’m still Dawein’s main reading teacher. Dawein keeps me grounded in Uncommon’s mission: to get kids to and through college and to do our part to end the poverty cycle. I want to continue to help our kids like I’m helping Dawein. I know that these kids have the potential to grow, learn and succeed, despite the cards they have been dealt in life.

Dawein called me again today. Knowing that he trusts me and is comfortable being honest with me is one of the greatest feelings I’ve known. I want my students to remember me as a teacher who showed that she cared about them, pushed them, loved them and did everything she could for them.

I want to be a champion for my students.

Published by

Zoë Cardinal

Core Values: Positivity, Dedication, Education & Growth A language nerd with a passion for learning, I aspire to live each day to its ultimate good. I'm consistently in search of ways to become a better person and world citizen, by being of service to others and practicing self-care. I'm currently a middle school teacher in Brooklyn, NYC. Before moving to the city, I studied French, Sociology and Linguistics. I'm blessed to have spent a year in the south of France and a year in Ireland during my studies. I'm sober. I'm queer. I believe I'm on this earth to learn as much as possible and inspire others to do the same!

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