Teacher Spotlight Interview: Mr. Halabi and How He Makes Our Schedules

By Saira Pannu and Isabel Frei, Grade 10, Staff Writers

Mr. Halabi is a founding teacher at the High School of American Studies who currently teaches Algebra II and Precalculus. Common Sense interviewed him to learn more about his life before HSAS and his current role at HSAS. He shared his backstory and inspiring words with his students.

Q: What’s your name and what do you teach? A: My name is Jonathan Halabi and I teach mathematics.

Q: What inspired you to teach? A: I had been working for the New York City Department of Transportation with the responsibility that went along with somebody who was a very beginning planner. I didn’t have a college degree and I had left school. They offered us some money to quit so I did . . . I was a bum for a while because they guaranteed us unemployment . . . Then I got another job, as a research cartographer. While being a bum, I went back to school and finished my degree . . . I didn’t really have any skills, and my uncle had been a teacher for a long time and said, “Why don’t you try teaching?” I said, “I don’t want to teach,” and he said, “Well what other prospects do you have?” I said, “Well not really anything,” and he said, “So, why don’t you try it?” So, if you want to call that inspiration that’s fine, but that’s the real story.

Q: What’s your teaching philosophy? Do you have one thing that you always stand by? A: My views on teaching have evolved over time. Many teachers take where they begin teaching from two places: a little bit of what they learned in teaching school or whatever program they did for their degree, and a lot from what they were taught, and I don’t think I’m any different from that. I’ve been introspective about the things that I did when I was a kid and what worked only because it was me. There are a few kids that are really really good at this stuff and things work for us that don’t work for other people. I also pay a lot of attention to what the education crowd is advising and arguing over, and I listen to the debates about how math is taught, and how teaching happens, and what happens in the classroom, and over time I've adopted bits and pieces from both sides. At this point, my approach to the structure of how mathematics is taught is very traditional and old fashioned, but in terms of what goes on in the classroom, I think there are a lot of modern ideas that make a lot more sense, and I’ve adopted a lot of them. I don’t give tests. I thought it was necessary to teach every single thing but I’m learning that you can pick things that are more important, twenty exercises can be replaced by two exercises and a very thoughtful question.

Q: How do you make schedules? Are they challenging to make? How do you accommodate the needs of every student? How long does it take? A: The freshman classes are divided into two groups. I set up a schedule that works for freshmen to have different combinations of classes in the morning. Each of those groups also has different combinations in the afternoon. We end up making something where there’s eight major freshman schedules plus eight or nine or ten other variations . . . We do the same thing for the other grades. I move all of the classes into a huge grid. Each box represents a day of the week with periods one through seven. Later on, I take the grids and spread it across the week, and then I mix up the order for the other days . . . It’s a big process and it’s long and hard. I type up all of the students’ names on a spreadsheet where each student is a line with the classes they should have. The computer does a mediocre job of putting students into classes and I play around with it and finalize it. The big part is making that grid; the grid is really difficult to make. I don’t make schedules for anyone, I make schedules for the school. It’s like working on a Rubix code—a multi- dimensional Rubix code where you can’t actually see all the sides that you’re working on because it’s not just students and courses and times, it’s a lot more than that. The schedule creation takes me months, some parts take me longer than others.

Q: Can you tell us about your work for the Teachers Union? A: I’ve been the union leader in the school since it was founded and I’m very active in the union outside of school as well. I was on their executive board for a long time and I'm the chapter leader, the UFT chapter leader at American Studies and I have been since 2002.