As the child of a United States Marine, Jaime traveled across America 5 times before she was 5 years old. She experienced kindergarten instruction in three world languages (English, American Sign Language and Vietnamese). As she heard the US propaganda about the evils of the USSR, she wanted to go to Moscow to see if all the children were really ‘evil'. Many years later, after studying International Relations with emphases in Russian and international development, Jaime found teaching — her other true love.
Be the change you wish to see in the world –Mahatma Gandhi
While unhappily working in the heart of the children’s clothing industry, I saw ads on the subway that drew me into teaching with the NYC Teaching Fellows:
You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?
What do you call a room full of authors, inventors and explorers?
–Your first period class.
Power lunch: brown bag with the debate team.They’re not rocket scientists.
As I embarked on the journey to teach, I thought back to my idealistic days in college, where I knew I wanted to change the world one person at a time. I wanted to make a difference more than I could ever explain. I felt it in the depths of my soul. Making the world a pretty place would not suffice; I wanted to make a difference.
Going from 33rd Street in the heart of Herald Square to the depths of Morrisania in the South Bronx, in one of the most notorious middle schools in NYC, was a fairly easy transition for me. My own high school’s driveway had a chalk outline of a corpse repainted yearly. Racial tensions abounded, and I had developed skills to navigate each clique deftly. I was certain I could navigate the challenges of teaching.
They always say the first year of teaching is rough. September 11th happened 4 days into my teaching career, leaving me to explain to 7th and 8th graders why two buildings fell. On November 12, 2001, one of my students’ parents died in an airplane crash in Belle Harbor, NY. For reasons still unknown, the principal was removed in January 2002, leaving a leadership vacuum. Many days went by where I had no idea who my boss was, what the agenda would be, or how we were accomplishing it. I think we had 4 principals that year, one of which left after being threatened over the loudspeaker by a child.
I kept working, collaborating with my mentor teachers, pursuing the Masters degree and certification. Whatever the children needed, I did my best to provide. When I realized they had no idea what basic geographic features looked like, I found calendars to rip apart and post around the room. I placed a child from Afghanistan in the front, just above the center of the chalkboard. In the middle of a lesson on the US Civil War, Jason raised his hand. I must admit I probably showed my shock, as Jason rarely paid attention, and never asked questions.
–“Miss, is that really what a girl in Afghanistan looks like?”
–“Wow. I had no idea. She looks just like my cousin.”
Go big or go home. Because it’s true. What do you have to lose?
–Eliza Dushku (actress)
Five years later, I sat on a 100 acre farm sixteen miles from the nearest town in Pennsylvania. I was on childcare leave, nursing a 9 month old daughter, while my husband worked at a local college. After dinner one night, I looked up from my laptop and said, “Honey, what if I started a school?”
He immediately said, “Go for it! What kind are you thinking?”
Throughout our relationship, I worked in a traditional middle school, taught graduate level courses, trained middle and high school teachers for NYCTF, and researched charter schools extensively. Spending days interviewing and researching innovative models such as The MET School, MATCH, and KIPP, I felt that I had a solid idea of cutting-edge high school models.
The conversation with my husband continued, capitalizing on past experiences that led me to this point of my life. I researched options for leadership. Would I want to go public? What about charters? Where would we do this? Central Pennsylvania was certainly not the right venue, so where would we move? How could I progress from experience teaching to educational leadership?
Editor's note: All photos were taken during a 3-day conference on tolerance, diversity and freedom hosted by Queens Collegiate; three American and three Dutch high schools participated.
Interviews for leadership programs ensued. In the middle of my interviewing process, I became incredibly ill. Yet, I knew the leadership program was right for me, so I convinced the doctor to turn off the IV and take off the hospital bracelet for one day—just long enough for me to drive into New York City, interview and make it back to the hospital for treatment. I still don't know how I made it through that interview.
Less than three weeks later, I received the much-awaited acceptance letter. We had 2 months to move back to New York City. My husband would leave his stable career, and search for another industry job, simply to help me actualize the dream. As with any worthwhile venture, we took risks, hoping that the investment would return.
During the program, we learned about Chancellor Klein’s initiative to create new small schools throughout New York City. Each student was asked to write a proposal, and offered the opportunity to submit it to to the Department of Education. My team and I were eventually asked by the College Board to partner in developing a school for international affairs.
After months of preparation we had one shot to get the school approved. A panel of ten interviewers questioned our ideas and implementation plans for 30 minutes. I had never been more nervous in my life. Yet I knew I was where I needed to be– going big, or going home.
Two days after Christmas, I received a call telling me that our Queens Collegiate's proposal had been accepted and that we would be given space in a landmarked school, on the top of a hill, in the heart of the most diverse New York borough: Queens.
Our life is composed greatly from dreams, from the unconscious, and they must be brought into connection with action. They must be woven together.
As a child in Pennsylvania, I dreamt of a secondary school where students learned world languages, cultural traditions, and communicated on a global scale. My alma mater provided pieces of this, with extensive exchange student programs, whereby I felt the richness from open doors. As the principal of Queens Collegiate, I strive daily for global collaboration, rigorous academic programs and a community that embraces all members and their unique traits. It did not come without intensive work, dedication, and a dream. The constant belief to “go big or go home” kept me going. Really, who sets out to design and lead a school at 32? Yet, I do not see any other way.
Those who know what they want to be as a young child are rare. Jaime has traveled extensively, studied international relations, worked in the garment industry, moved to teaching, etc. In starting a school she is drawing on her life experience, academic work, and professional training. How are your life experiences weaving themselves together?
Jaime's husband has been key to achieving her dream. This has also been true for me. If you have not yet married, is marrying someone who supports you in your dreams one of your criteria? If you are married and your dreams have been on hold, to what extent have you helped your husband achieve his dream?