Portrait of a Young Teacher in an Inner-City High School
When I was first introduced to Ferrin Bujan, a 24-year-old teacher at the Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School, I found it difficult to pick her from of the group of students surrounding her. It was the end of the school day, and her blue jeans looked like every other pair of blue jeans in the room. During my second week of shooting at the school, I asked Bujan if I could to take the trip to school with her in the morning. "Sure, be at my place at 5:30 a.m.," she responded. It was then that I began to realize how far she was from being a student in blue jeans. She was a consummate professional.
Ms. Bujan is a native of Queens, N.Y., born into a West Indian-Trinidadian family. As a math and education major at Queens College, Bujan found herself confused and uncertain about possible career paths. She had originally wanted to pursue law school. But during her senior year, she had her first experience in a classroom as a student-teacher and everything changed for her. “I knew this was where I wanted to be,” she told me. After three years of teaching high school math and special education, she hasn’t looked back.
I spent nearly four months last school year with Bujan at BCAM, a small public school in Brooklyn where I taught a photography class last spring. She was still a comparatively new teacher, and had recently finished her master’s in special education. She was the youngest teacher in her school.
For Bujan, there are benefits to being a young teacher in a high school. Her students view her as approachable and relatable. As a result, Bujan has close relationships with many of them; they often confide in her about issues they’re having in and out of school. It’s not uncommon to see several students spending their lunch hour chatting with her. But while she's an obviously nurturing person, Bujan is also very clear about her role as a teacher. Her students know she is ultimately there to teach, not be a friend.
At the same time, because of her relative youth, Bujan occasionally encounters rude comments in the hallways and in classes, and students are liable to treat her disrespectfully. She has a tendency to take these insults personally. One afternoon after the New York Regents exams this spring, Bujan planned a party for her students. She had stayed up all night baking cupcakes and traditional homemade Trinidadian macaroni and cheese. A student took one look at the macaroni and cheese and made a vomiting sound. Bujan immediately covered the food and sat in silence for the rest of the period, too upset to even speak to her students. “They don’t care. They don’t care that I stayed up all night making this especially for them,” she lamented.
Bujan worries about systemic challenges as well. She often feels like student test scores are all that matter in her district. Yet she has students who rarely show up to class, and their scores still factor against her. This is particularly difficult given that Bujan is up for tenure this year, a process that involves an increasingly rigorous application process. She feels pressure to do well by her principal. “It’s hard. The city wants so much and they give you so little,” she said.
The photographs gathered here attempt to capture the personal and occupational challenges Bujan faces as a young teacher. In the process, I think they also show resiliency and engagement in her work.