For some teachers, like J.E.B. Stuart freshman English teacher Vanessa Maxey, this school year marks the first spent at the fore of a high school classroom. Then, there are savvy vets like math chair Stuart Singer, who has been a fixture in the school’s math department and athletic fields for 39 years. The News-Press’ Alex Prewitt spoke with Ms. Maxey and Mr. Singer in a joint interview to learn the ins and outs of the profession from both ends of the career spectrum.
Alex Prewitt: Ms. Maxey, what made you want to teach?
Vanessa Maxey: Ever since I graduated from college; I majored in English; so I always wanted to be a writing teacher. I started out in elementary school and doing elementary school programs and teaching little kids literacy and I just decided that I wanted to go back to grad school and continue with education, but do mainly English.
A.P.: And have you been in this area primarily, or have you been elsewhere?
V.M.: I grew up in Fairfax county, I went to school at George Mason University, and went to grad school at Radford University. That was the only time I’ve been out of the county.
A.P. Mr. Singer, what got you involved in the profession?
Stuart Singer: When I was a 10th grader in high school, I realized that I wanted to teach. So, I made the decision that I wanted to be a coach and a high school teacher. That dream never changed for me. I went to college, got my mathematics degree, and I also have a journalism degree, I’m not sure why, but I do, and I started teaching. And it was just as much enjoyment as I thought it would be. I don’t think that there are many professions that have the profound impact on a human being that an education can have.
A.P.: Mr. Singer, you mentioned role models, what sort of steps do you take to ensure that you prepare these kids for the world as best as possible?
S.S.: One thing that I try to do as a role model is to show that I value education, that I am a life long learner, that I believe that what we’re doing here is important. Whether I’m talking to very inexperienced teachers, or whether I am talking to adolescents, they need to know that what’s going on inside this building will have a profound effect on the rest of their lives.
A.P.: Ms. Maxey, what are you most looking forward to as you start this year?
V.M.: I’m looking forward to building a relationship with my students. What I think is the most fun is getting to know them, getting to that level where you can influence them to do things. I look forward to getting better at teaching, because I’m trying out new things, good and bad, and progressing in my own career.
A.P.: Is there anything that you are more nervous about starting this year?
V.M.: The kid’s don’t make me nervous as much as all the paperwork, workshops, grading, papers, setting up the blackboard, checking my e-mail everyday and just keeping on top of everything. There’s a lot that makes me nervous.
A.P.: Mr. Singer, you mentioned that you have worked here for 38 years, is there anything that still makes you nervous coming to school?
S.S: I get very nervous almost everyday. For me, teaching is a performance, just like an athlete or a play. I get nervous in front of all these kids because I feel like I want them to perform well, and I am terrified of making mistakes and not getting my message across. To follow up on what she said, the biggest downside to education today is the massive amounts of paperwork and bureaucracy. There is no question about it.
A.P.: Do you remember your first day at J.E.B Stuart.?
S.S.: I was terrified. I was 21 years old, I looked about 14, I was put down in the area where the shop classes were being taught, so I had to deal with the mechanical repairs that were going on at the same time I was trying to teach. So, since I was the first new math teacher in four years … and to ensure that no student had the same teacher they had the year before, they put every student who failed in my classes, because they couldn’t have had me the year before. So I had the most mature class in history. I had kids who had failed Algebra I three or four times. This was a real event for me because I was trying to overcome failure, so I was very concerned with kids not understanding. The faculty helped and because this is something that I had always wanted to do, I refused to give in.
V.M.: The faculty is one of the things that helps me stay calm. They’ve been so helpful, with materials and the mentoring program. Did they have that when you started?
S.S.: Yes, and those are the things that I consider somewhat unique to Stuart High School.
V.M.: They are so helpful and collaborative, and they make me feel so comfortable because I too am young. I’ve been asked for my pass a couple times.
S.S.: I think that one of the strengths of this school is that my teaching career, in a way depends on you being successful. And because of that, I want to do whatever I can do to ensure that you are successful. The other thing that this school’s administrative staff listens, and it has kept some of the bureaucracy under control.
A.P.: Is there any reason that you love to work here, or that you chose here to work at.
V.M.: I was looking at Stuart and a couple of other schools and it really was my interviewing process that made me feel really comfortable at this school. I felt comfortable with the assistant principal, I felt comfortable with the different teachers, and I didn’t feel that comfort with some of those other schools.
A.P.: Is there anything that you have seen that sets J.E.B. Stuart apart from all the other schools in the area?
V.M.: One thing I notice is that the administration is really behind the teachers. The administration gets on the students as well. If you tell them they can’t be tardy to class, something small like that, the administration backs it up. I’ve been in other schools where there has been a lack of communication between the administration and teachers and that way you can’t really have a good role, because they’re not really consistent.
A.P.: How were you instructed to deal with a student acting out in class?
V.M.: I’m instructed to use my classroom management skills to the best of my ability. But if I really need help, I can turn to a mentor and if need be, they can come by. I can always use the emergency class box, or press “0” on the telephone to call the main office and that’s a comfort. I hope nothing explodes in my classroom where I’ll have to deal with that, but it’s comforting to know that that’s there, someone to ask advice and someone to help me if it’s not working out.
S.S.: If the student is testing the teacher, I think that in those situations, it’s always better for the teacher to handle it themselves, because that’s what students are doing, testing the teacher. If the student is, as I like to call it, trying to “hijack” the class, in other words if they are going to impede upon the education of the other kids in the room, then our administrative staff needs to come in and needs to fix that, either by counseling the student, or putting him in the timeout room, giving him detention, whatever. Teachers need to show that they can handle their own situations, no doubt about it … but if the student is exhibiting some sort of behavior that is going to rob the classroom of a positive educational environment, then if the teacher can’t fix it that quickly, they need to turn it over. And that’s one of the hardest things for teachers, to know when to do that. It’s not necessarily a sign of weakness to turn certain circumstances over to the administrative staff. This is a collaborative effort, between the teachers and the administration.
A.P.: If you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing?
A.P.: And is there any particular area, like books or journalism?
S.S.: Well, I’ve done some magazines writing and some newspaper writing and that I’ve been relatively successful at. I did the Washington Post and the Washingtonian. I have written a couple books, but those have not been as successful, those have not been published. But, I thought that if I had an option of what I was doing, I think I probably would be writing. I’m not sure that I would be doing mathematics.
A.P.: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t teaching?
V.M.: I’d either be writing, which I went to school for, primarily, or, in a perfect world, I would be acting. That was what I wanted to do before, a performing English teacher.
A.P.: Are there any questions you have for Mr. Singer about school?
V.M.: I’ve asked so many people so many questions, I just hope that I can have the same enthusiasm that you do after 30 years, how did you not get jaded?
S.S.: Well one of the things that I do is to get myself diverse, I sponsored the junior class, I coached football for 23 years, coached tennis for 30 years, I should say that there were some years behind each of those, I’ve been chairman of the math department for 25 years. I also stretched myself by teaching Algebra I, I’ve taught Algebra II, now I teach Pre Calculus, different teaching situations as well. And of course, the fact that everything’s changed, technology and all these other things, if you try to keep up with it, it’s a different job. The job I do today is very different than the job I did 38 years ago. And I just love math, and I love to teach, so, easy explanation.
A.P.: Any questions you have for her?
S.S.: Well no, it’s too early to ask her any questions, except give her a little advice — work to your passion, if you love what you do, stick with it. I see a lot of teachers who spend 30 years teaching and can’t wait to retire, and that troubles me, unless they have something really spectacular to do. And then I see people who love what they do, and if you don’t love what you do, don’t stay here. I feel like I am one of the luckiest people around, because at the end of the day, I have done the job that I love to do for a long time.
SS: One last thing, education, becoming a teacher is not an overnight occurrence, and this year I’m doing things I didn’t do last year, because I think that I am learning and building each year. It is not a one time thing, it’s a recurring event, and consequently, you need to be always on the edge, and be open to getting better.