After graduating Brown with degrees in children’s cognitive development and Hispanic literature and culture, Sara Yerry’s jump to dual language teacher and advocate was a natural one. At Brooklyn Arbor School in South Williamsburg, Yerry serves as both a fourth grade Spanish-English classroom teacher and as the dual language coordinator, where she oversees development, teacher training and screening for a program that has gone from one kindergarten class in 2012 to a dual language class per grade at the K-5 school. Her work landed her a 2016-17 Big Apple Award for outstanding work in the classroom, and she continues to be a strong voice for equal rights for low-income students in NYC.
How/why did you become involved in your line of work? I studied children’s cognitive development and Hispanic literature and culture at Brown. When I learned that the New York City Teaching Fellows program was seeking people to fill high-needs vacancies in schools with underserved populations, I jumped on the opportunity to meld two of my interests as a bilingual teacher. I quickly became an advocate for native language instruction for students learning English as second language. I started a dual language program at my previous school in East Harlem and now I am the dual language coordinator at Brooklyn Arbor, a public magnet school South Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Tell us a little bit about your present work, the Cliffs Notes version of your day to day and what is at stake. I am a dual language (Spanish-English) classroom teacher. I teach fourth grade but I taught kindergarten, first, and second grades in previous years. My students are a mix of native Spanish speakers learning English, native English speakers learning Spanish, and bilingual students. I am in charge of literacy, math, science, social studies, and language instruction. My students spend half of their elementary school career learning a second language. I am also the dual language coordinator. I oversee curriculum, teacher development, and screening for our growing program. We opened in 2012 with one dual language classroom in kindergarten and next year we will have a dual language class on each grade, K-5.
What do you find most fulfilling about your work? The relationships with students and parents, they stay with you long after the school year ends. Teaching and learning is a shared experience and it is all about relationships and connections. After thirteen years in the classroom, I can call to mind countless moments of sheer joy. I can’t imagine another profession where that is possible.
What is your proudest achievement with this work and what is your greatest challenge? Proudest achievements –
Closing the achievement gap for historically underperforming populations.
Being nominated by parents for the Big Apple Award
Starting a non-profit to help low-income students connect with enrichment programming
Helping bring a soccer field to the rooftop of my school in East Harlem
Greatest challenges –
I grapple with how to ensure low-income students in NYC can be afforded the same educational and enrichment opportunities as their upper-income peers in a city where the neighborhood you live in often determines how many resources your school has and the opportunities you have access to. Teaching in two languages requires a tremendous amount of planning. Bilingual educators and students do double the work.
What do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field in the future? I hope that NYC education officials and community members continue to work to decrease socioeconomic segregation in our schools. I believe that diverse, integrated, inclusive learning communities where students of all socioeconomic backgrounds are represented are essential to closing the achievement gap in our nation.
Another challenge – The work is never over, the to-do list never gets completely checked off. You wonder whether you have done enough to reach the struggling student or sufficiently challenged the advanced; and whether the values of kindness, inclusivity, and inquiry that I try to instill in kids stick long after they leave the classroom.