Tatyana Zhukov on Carmen Farina and Interning in Moscow

Noodle Expert Tatyana Zhukov discusses the wisdom of Carmen Farina and the community she found during her internship in Moscow.

Noodle Expert Tatyana Zhukov discusses the wisdom of Carmen Farina and the community she found during her internship in Moscow.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I would pick Carmen Farina. I first learned of her as the principal of an elementary school in New York City, and now she is the chancellor of education here. As I’m finishing my fourth year of teaching, Ms. Farina would teach me a course on education in New York City. In this course, I would want to learn about education management and ways to support growth, kindness, and understanding in urban areas that are high-needs.

My big questions are: how can we spread the word about project-based learning as a way to engage students and contribute to mastery of Common Core Standards? Do longer school days implemented by charter schools show positive effects? What is your view on homework? How does positive discipline measure up to other behavior management techniques? What does growth mean for students, teachers, and school communities? It would also be interesting to gain perspective on how different roles in education work together to impact a community.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Dr. Wolf closed the classroom door during the last lecture of a graduate seminar on dyslexia at Tufts. She said she would tell us a secret that allowed her to market her reading intervention program. I’d already learned about her extensive work on teaching students with dyslexia as well as her double-deficit hypothesis of dyslexia. She now explained that dyslexia is complex and multi-faceted, and that the double deficit she coined was a way to get people to listen to her idea.

Having had a triple major in college and being of the mindset that seeing all the angles to an issue is how changes are made, I was shocked. If this incredible professor and scientist saw all that affected people with dyslexia, why would she want to conceal any of it? Without fully understanding the impact of Dr. Wolf’s revelation, I continue to gather pieces of it as it relates to my own teaching. Every child that I work with brings a unique perspective to my lessons. While I pride myself on teaching lessons that are individualized and differentiated, it is difficult to meet the needs of every child in every lesson.

Because of Dr. Wolf’s piece of wisdom, I am more able to let go of detailed differences and appreciate that everyone has special styles of learning. I am thus able to focus on approaches that work for the majority of students, especially including those with learning differences. With this “less is more” mentality, I have zoomed in on hands-on, project-based learning and arts integration as a way to engage and challenge all students that I work with, regardless of differences.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

I would send a student to Russia. I am from Saint Petersburg and grew up there. One summer, I traveled to Moscow for a five-week internship at the CCP, or Moscow Center for Curative Pedagogies. This is the first center in all of Russia that offers comprehensive care, including speech and music therapy, for children with disabilities. During my time in Moscow, I had to adjust to a daily routine that was nothing like what I have experienced before, and it was exhilarating. In my spare time, I started to help out staff in the kitchen and enjoyed learning stories of their lives over peeling potatoes and tearing up while cutting onions. Before I knew it, we were sharing photos of our families. I got to taste homemade jams and would even be called when lunch was ready to try it before anyone else had a chance. I saw myself from different angles and felt determined to conquer my fears and immerse in a new way of life. Within the time I was in Moscow, I became a part of the CCP family. I was humbled and inspired by the dedication and passion of knowledgeable leaders.

Overall, by traveling abroad, I was able to break out of my every day routine, form new relationships, and envision the world in ways I had not thought of before. The ideas I came up with during my time in Moscow paved the way to my career and continue to influence my daily work. l firmly believe that anyone can benefit from cross-cultural learning experiences, and I would encourage everyone to embark on a study abroad journey.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I decided that I wanted to be a doctor in my first biology class as a freshman in college. I loved biology in high school and was successful in it. By the third week of college, I was falling asleep during lectures and could not keep up with the material even when I was awake. I could not figure out if it was the boredom I felt or the difficulty of the material that was preventing me from making any progress. The more I tried, the more my disdain for the subject grew.

I ended up dropping the class just before final exams. I did not earn a science credit that semester. In order to “catch up,” I courageously signed up for chemistry and physics for the following semester. Alas, instead of feeling determined, as I had expected myself to, I felt angry and defeated. In the end, I realized that there was no point in pushing myself into something that was not working for me. I switched out of the pre-med major and pursued child development instead. I was excited to go to my new, different classes and found a passion for working to benefit children. This experience was certainly key in the search for my “element.”

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

I see myself as someone who can influence children to be critical thinkers and compassionate in their actions. I decided to be a teacher largely because of the profound influence of my first piano teacher back in Saint Petersburg. And so, after finishing college, I set out to be a role model for children who need it most.

As I continue on my journey, my experience in four very different public charter schools has taught me things I did not expect to learn. I realize now that relationships with children and families can make or break the health of school communities. Before children are willing to learn, and in order for families to be equipped with resources to support learning, all parties involved must trust and respect each other. Meanwhile, leadership in schools is of critical importance. Schools where teachers are not trusted, trained, or respected cannot function as healthy communities. Teacher turnover, in my experience, is a predominant marker of the health of a school, yet I have seen retention rates dismissed as the natural order of things. Through the frenzy of testing and pressure to achieve mastery of Common Core standards, I time and time again see the health of school communities deteriorate.

In addition, if teacher evaluations that are based on standardized assessment scores, where is the trust, and where are the children? I continue to believe in transformational work involving arts-based literacy, yet many schools continue to cut funding for the arts, including my school. Overall, the field of education is heading in a direction that I am not comfortable with, and I see myself needing to take on education policy in order to continue to be the positive role model for children that I set out to be.

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