The Value of a Variable
by Monica Franklin
It has often been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. Churchgoers have a natural tendency to gather in congregations made up of those from their same general ethnic backgrounds. In my small and very new church, where nearly everyone is African American, there is a young Caucasian woman that fits into this growing “family” perfectly. Stacy Przinski is clearly very comfortable in this new environment, and at the same time, stands out from the crowd. On the surface, one would quickly note that she is a petite, blue-eyed blonde with a bubbly demeanor, a quirky style of dress that is always pulled together, and her obvious affection for every single one of the children in our church is endearing. However, when I had the opportunity to talk with her on occasion, I discovered that this pleasant young newlywed was also an energetic, devoted, and very intelligent middle school teacher who is making a difference in the lives of inner city minority youth. I was very curious to get to know her better.
Stacy joined me for lunch one Sunday after service at one of her favorite places, O’Charley’s. Escaping the cold and rain of that gloomy afternoon, we dashed in from the parking lot and settled into a comfortable booth. The place was busy and very noisy with the usual after-church crowd and our server was quick to bring a basket of wonderful smelling, freshly baked yeast rolls and butter. The combination of comfort food and good company made the flow of conversation easy.
Stacy was more than happy to tell me her story. Her family heritage is German and she lived her entire life in Atlanta. Her idea of a dream career, to be a cosmetologist like many of the other women in her family, was not encouraged by her father. He wanted her to consider a different path. When I asked what college she attended, she smiled broadly and said very proudly, “I went to Georgia Tech. I studied Industrial Design.” With this statement, the bright blue streaks on the sides of her dark designer glasses reflected the sparkle that appeared in her eyes.
She explained that she had been hanging out with a friend who was studying at Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture. While visiting, she noticed a student building a bicycle designed for a handicapped child and, since that appeared to be much more intriguing to her than architecture, she inquired about the Industrial Design program. It appealed to her, and she enrolled shortly thereafter. The program covered all sorts of design, human interaction, psychology, mathematics and sciences and allowed her to work on a variety of tasks, from designing toys for Disney to an entertainment unit for Crate and Barrel.
Working on these projects, she found that her preference was always designing children’s products, but even more important was the fact that she really just enjoyed interacting with kids. Stacy, who always considered herself a leader in the classroom, began taking Education classes to broaden her horizons. In her senior year, she joined Americorps and started teaching underprivileged inner-city youth. She realized these classrooms were where she wanted to be, and there was definitely a need for teachers. She joined the Teach for America program which utilizes a select group of students, chosen to go into schools that are in dire need of good teachers, to help get the school turned back around. These selected schools are either not making their Adequate Yearly Progress, or they’re failing in almost every aspect as far as getting the students on grade level. Some of her friends and family members were confused by her shift in direction, asked why she walked away from her talent, but she reassured them that she was simply using it in different ways.
Stacy is currently teaching 8th grade Math at Kennedy Middle School on Charlotte’s southwest side. It is an older school that doesn’t receive government funding. As such, they often are in need of materials and resources. Most of her students come from struggling households, and only 40% of them are on grade level. When asked why she chose to teach Math, she explained that she is a very analytical thinker and has always loved manipulating numbers. She wouldn’t have considered teaching any other subject.
Since she is most concerned with reaching her students in ways that work with their level of understanding, her teaching methods are often unconventional. She stated emphatically that she has never pulled out a book in her classroom and never will. She became more animated when talking about her students and offered her explanation, “I’ve learned that these kids don’t learn from a book. They really don’t. I can’t even get them to sit still and read a book, much less read and understand it. So, I teach very differently. I have to make it work for my kids. Some of them could sit with a book and begin to understand, but others would be clueless. They would have trouble even understanding where to open the page.” She teaches by way of activities. They dance, they rap, they sing, they shout out math formulas and problems. Her students are learning to enjoy the process of learning.
She truly loves teaching, but often has great difficulty with the discipline problems that she faces daily. She understands that many come from “tough backgrounds” and their home lives are beyond challenging, which affects their focus on learning. At this point, her demeanor shifts and she is noticeably saddened. “They need somebody to be there for them. I love being that person, but sometimes you’re the nurse, you’re the psychologist, you’re the teacher, you’re the mom, you know… it’s hard.” The parental involvement for these students is almost nonexistent. At a recent Parent University Night that was organized by the school as a means for parents to come in and learn how to help their children succeed in the classroom, only two parents showed up. Many of the parents are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, and they’re either not physically there for their kids or just don’t care.
There were several interruptions, thanks to our very attentive server. However, between bites of eggs and potatoes, Stacy had no trouble holding my attention.
She believes she has found her true calling. She worked previously in the field of design, where the money was great, but, at some point, she asked herself if she was making any real difference in anyone’s life. Her answer is what drove her to make a career change. She acknowledges that it is really tough at times, but she knows she is making an impact. When her students began the school year, many of them weren’t able to handle the simplest of math tasks and they had forgotten many of the basics that they learned in the 3rd grade. She has re-taught those basics and challenged them as well. Students that were failing initially are now getting 60’s and 70’s. Some are even getting 90’s, which is incredible considering the fact that only a few months have passed. Stacy recently received an award for New Teacher of the Year, a result of her efforts in raising the bar for her students and showing them their potential.
The conversation shifted to a discussion of whether she would continue teaching underprivileged middle school students of varying ethnicities on a long term basis, given the difficulties and stress that come with the job. The fact that this blue-eyed blonde is a minority at her workplace and her church is a non-issue for Stacy. From her perspective, each person’s personality and potential far outweigh their complexion. She considers her future plans flexible. In light of the fact that she’s enormously bright, talented and only 23 years old, her options are open. However, her loving connection to her students is clear. She pauses, and continues more slowly and thoughtfully, “It would be great if my kids would come back to me in 3 years and say – ‘Wow, you really helped me.’ I don’t want the thanks, necessarily, but it would feel good to know that your kids did really well.”