Jabari Brisport is headed to Albany. That fact isn’t much of a surprise, considering he ran unopposed in Tuesday’s election to represent the 25th state Senate District in Brooklyn. But his success is making history nonetheless – he’ll be the next Democratic Socialist of America member headed to the state Senate and will become the first Black openly gay member of the state Legislature.
While the 33-year-old is already looking at the policy priorities ahead of him – criminal justice reform and access to housing among them – for now, his head is still in the classroom. Brisport is a public school teacher in Brooklyn and is still teaching his sixth- and seventh-grade classes at his Crown Heights school. When he heads to Albany in January, Brisport will have the unique perspective as someone who knows what it’s like to have the impossible job of teaching during the coronavirus pandemic – and may even be in the position to address some of those challenges legislatively.
City & State spoke to Brisport on Monday about his experience teaching during the pandemic in the spring and this fall, the challenges teachers have encountered and the uphill battles some students face participating in the classroom. While Brisport will leave his teaching post at the end of the semester to prepare to join the state Senate, there’s a lot about his old job that he’ll miss. “There’s nothing quite like knowing that you’ve made somebody else feel smart and accomplished, like they’ve learned a new skill and that they’re excited to enjoy their education,” he said.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You, along with other teachers, are back in the classroom now for blended learning after holding fully remote classes in the spring. How has the transition been for you?
It’s really alienating right now inside schools. The environment, it feels like a graveyard, to be honest. It’s so empty and so quiet. I didn’t realize it would be so jarring to be in a school where it was quiet, but to be in a school and not hear children, it was very, very jarring. It’s a really difficult transition. My school is having us teach blended at the same time, so I’ll be teaching students in the room and at home at the same time. I’ve been able to make it work, but it is very disassociating for the kids, because they’re in class, but they’re really online.
How has the transition been for students?
All my students take online class, whether they’re at home or in the room. They’re all separated from each other and can’t actually interact with each other. I know we were all saying we want socialization and everything back for the kids, but they’re not socializing. They’re not allowed to be near each other. So it feels like a very alien environment. Also, kids are not turning up. The mayor rammed through this program saying that the kids want to come back. My first class of the day had zero kids in person; everyone was online. My second class had one student (in-person) and everyone else was online. I think I had six or so in my third class, and seven or so in my last. For parents, you have the one option to choose to be blended, otherwise you’re stuck remote all the time. So, what I’m seeing is some parents (have) their child on the books as a blended student so they have the option, but they’re de facto a remote student. They’re just at home.
A major issue has been internet access, and we know that low-income New Yorkers, people of color and students in temporary housing are more likely to lack internet access and stand to fall behind in their education. Is that something you’ve witnessed with your students?
Yeah, I mean there are students that I have not seen since March because they don’t have internet access. Those students might be hard to reach, and we have their parents’ numbers on file, but their parents’ numbers are no longer working. They end up slipping through the cracks. It’s kind of heartbreaking. I just hope they’re OK. One of them, I won’t share his name, he is a really great student who I had not seen since March. He kept on being like, “Mr. Brisport” – because he’s in my class again this year – “Mr. Brisport, what’s the code?” And I was like, “Oh awesome, come on in,” and I sent him the code and never heard from him again. I heard from him once in the past eight months and it was him asking to get in the class, and then never again. Stuff like that is really jarring.
When you say code, you mean like a password to enter a Zoom?
Yeah, well it was to join our Google Classroom.
Do you feel like this fall is any different than the spring? Obviously some kids are back in the classroom, but are things running any more smoothly with remote learning?
I mean, as smoothly as they can. This is definitely new for all teachers – teaching kids at home and in the room at the same time. I will say that a lot of us have grown much more facile at distance teaching. It’s a different skill set. One way it’s different is that when everything shut down on a dime in the spring, all of us just basically tried to recreate the physical classroom online. So we would show up on Zoom and you’d see images of teachers at a whiteboard on their Zoom. Now, I think a lot of us are much more aware of online platforms that are better for someone that’s interacting with class via screen. So that’s better. My students are definitely learning a lot better now than they were in the spring. And I’m able to get much better feedback on what they’re confused about than in the spring. So that’s smoother in some regard.
How do you feel about the level of information and communication you’re getting from the city and from the Department of Education?
Little things like switching the time that a parent can switch from remote (learning) to blended, they have massive ripple effects. I work at a school with 1,400 kids and each one has their own schedule of where they’re supposed to be and what teacher they have, so when you switch things like that, it just shifts everything and causes a huge cascade of issues. The beginning of the year was really hard, when they kept changing when exactly we were starting the school year. That was really disorienting. At this point, I’ve kind of gotten used to things being last minute. I think the easiest thing that we could’ve done would be to have started off fully remote and prepare for that. But at this point, it seems like everyone is doing the best they can with the limited knowledge they have.
Are you thinking about ways to address some of these challenges, like internet access, when you get to Albany next year? If so, how specifically?
I’m very biased, as you know, because I’m a socialist. So whenever we can put things in the public sector, I want to do that. But I really do think that having publicly owned internet would help out. It’s not as profitable for companies to build out broadband into lower-income areas, so they’re not going to do it. But if you start viewing (internet) as something that’s a public service, then we can start thinking, “OK, well we have more resources in one area, let’s move them to this area that has a little bit less.” And we can ensure that everyone has access.
You’ll be leaving the classroom at the end of the semester. What are you going to miss most about teaching and being with students?
This sounds so teacher dorky, but there’s really nothing like having a really, really good class where the students all get the material and feel smart and feel really good about themselves. There’s nothing quite like knowing that you’ve made somebody else feel smart and accomplished, and like they’ve learned a new skill and that they’re excited to enjoy their education. So I’ll miss that.
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