At Home in the Classroom: Former Harlem Resident Returns to Teach
When Tyreen Sims decided to change careers from psychologist to teacher, she hadn’t expected to work across the street from where she grew up — with a principal she’s known since elementary school. This is the happy accident that unfolded at Success Academy Harlem 2, where Tyreen started as a lead science teacher in 2015.
From playing hopscotch with her students at recess to posing brain-stretching math problems in Number Stories, Tyreen takes every opportunity to invest children in their own learning. The potential she sees in each one of her students — and the support systems in place to help teachers at SA unlock that potential —keep her energized and excited to be a teacher. Tyreen graduated from Gettysburg College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and later earned a master’s in elementary education and teaching from Touro College.
She took us inside her school to show us exactly what makes it feel like home.
Even though I grew up across the street from this school, I now have a long commute — a 45-minute bus ride! I’m pretty spiritual, so I still take time each morning for positive affirmations and to make sure I’m in the right mind-set before heading out. I believe that access to a strong education is the key to success — I was lucky enough to have a great elementary school — which is why it’s important to me that I bring my A game each day for my scholars.
My scholars and I are more likely to have a good day when I’m fully prepared for lessons, so I use this time each morning to get everything ready. My grade team and I also divide and conquer by each taking on an assignment — I’m in charge of the math component for the entire grade, so I prepare materials for everyone’s math lessons for the day.
I greet scholars as they arrive every day. It’s always amazing to me to see just how resilient they are — and how passionate they are about learning. Even if the day before didn’t go well for one scholar, he or she often comes into class with lots of energy the next morning and is ready for a fresh start.
We start off with morning meeting, which is a chance for me to set fresh expectations and give the class a look at the day ahead. One thing that keeps me so motivated here is the fact that we don’t shy away from stretching the kids. There’s no limit for a child — they are fearless — so they can meet the highest of expectations when you set them up for success.
I am a proud mama to every one of my kids! Today several of my scholars are singing in our Winter Performance. I like to attend performances and make signs for them all. I also try to go to as many of the sporting events as I can. There’s something special about seeing their talent in action, and they are so invested and excited that you can’t help getting caught up in their passion.
We had to adjust the day’s schedule since it was a performance day, but I am pleased with how well the scholars are able to settle down and focus on our shared text lesson. For these, we read a passage together, and then they practice answering questions on their own before we regroup for discussion. Today the class as a whole all seems to grasp and articulate the main idea really well, so I make a big deal about it: “We rocked this!”
Math is my favorite part of the day. I pump up my scholars so that they are energized to the max — we make math routine a friendly competition. These are problem sets that really help them get ready for the more challenging math concepts, so most of them find the routine “easy peasy lemon squeezy,” as I like to say. When they complain that it’s too easy, I give them a challenge boost. I love watching how excited they get over multiplying fractions and whole numbers.
For our current math project, our scholars are solving a set of clues, which are fraction problems, to design a bike race course with strategic rest points along the number line. They work together in pairs, while I go around the room and assess where each group is excelling or struggling. I find that presenting math concepts in a story format helps motivate and clarify. I also often make things a little competitive to keep it interesting: the first team to plot all of the rest points will win the race.
Coincidentally, I went to elementary school with my senior leader! We work really well together after knowing each other so many years. My class is currently struggling in reading, so we check on how I can alter my efforts. Reflectiveness and persistence are essential for success as a teacher, and I appreciate having the space to grow and receive feedback in these meetings and in our weekly professional development sessions.
The adults in the building always try to find ways to have fun, because if you don’t, it’s going to be a very long day! I treat my colleagues to a short rap session this afternoon before organizing my classroom in preparation for after-lunch lessons. It makes a huge difference to work with people who support one another and laugh together, even if just in passing in the hallway.
I never miss recess! I love playing hopscotch and tag. I also like to eat with my class because it lets us connect and relax together. Kids simply are less likely to learn from someone they don’t like, and they won’t hear you if you aren’t authentic. So they’ve come to know me — and my love of sports and superheros.
After our break I find that I need to reset the energy and the expectations. We’ll usually take 10 minutes to meditate using breathing videos online. Then I encourage the class to find their comfy spot on the rug so that they can really listen to the story. Right now we’re learning myths, which is great practice for them to act like detectives and use evidence to support what they think the main message is in the text.
At the end of the day I call everyone up row by row to pack their bags and get ready to head home. I know their parents really well and enjoy having a quick catch-up at dismissal. But even if I hadn’t grown up as neighbors with their families, I would make it a point to be available at the end of the day. I can’t do what I do without the support of my scholars’ parents, so we have to function like a team.