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During this extraordinary time when New York City’s educators are working closely with students and families from the confines of their homes, we are publishing a series of posts describing their experiences in their own words. We are now #DOEconnected!

Follow our hashtag, #DOEconnected, join the conversation, and connect online with your neighbors across the City. Share stories of how you, your child, a teacher, or a school community member has become your hero. Remember, not all heroes wear capes.


Sarah Cullen, K–12 teacher, P.S. 138 (District 75) in Manhattan

Sarah Cullen smiling while using her laptop for remote instruction

Sarah Cullen, a K–12 teacher in District 75’s P.S. 138 program, was honored earlier this year with a 2020 Big Apple Award, which recognizes and celebrates outstanding New York City public school teachers who inspire students, model great teaching, and enrich their school communities. During the school year, Sarah normally teaches all subjects, but this summer, her class is focusing on literacy and life skills, as well as social and communication skills.

Initially, Sarah and her team faced some challenges in transitioning to the remote learning space during the spring semester of the 2019-20 academic year. She found that creating meaningful work for her students was an obstacle early on as her “students benefit from hands-on, vocational, skill-based, and real-world learning”. Having students complete this type of work in a remote setting was particularly difficult. Gradually, however, she successfully learned how to translate that vital “hands-on” instruction online.

“Most of my teaching during the year focuses on real world skill building in the community. Luckily, I was able to work with our school’s transition coordinator who was partnering with District 75’s travel training program.” That partnership allowed Sarah and the coordinator to help a few high school seniors complete travel training lessons at home with their families. In addition, Sarah found fantastic assignments online to help students learn the “real world skills” that they will use on the job after graduation—such as organizing and filing.

“I was… surprised by how much of a leadership role I took during remote learning in my school. I joined the school’s tech team and helped create the school’s tech parent support team. I was apprehensive when we started remote learning and admittedly negative about what it would look like for our kids! I’m surprised by how well I adapted (and my kids, too)!”

Another obstacle Sarah faced was getting students and their families to log in and successfully use the technology needed for remote instruction. Some parents she worked with were new to email, video conferencing, and platforms like Google Classroom—so Sarah created a Parent Support team to help ease with this transition. Parents could then reach out with technical support questions, login concern, and Google Classroom requests. By helping parents overcome minor technical issues early on, Sarah and her colleagues ensured families wouldn’t get frustrated and tap out of remote learning altogether.

In Sarah’s experience, flexible scheduling and Google applications were two of the most important factors contributing to the overall success of her students. “Students had choices of when they wanted to attend class and turn in work…(and)… were given ample time to complete work independently.”

Portrait of Sarah Cullen smiling

Sarah was one of 19 educators honored with a 2020 Big Apple Award this year. She was recognized for being a “fierce advocate” for her students.

Flexibility in scheduling and completing assignments was also helpful for parents, which Sarah found “increases engagement overall (happier parents = more engagement online!”). She attributes the productive collaboration among her students to the class’s regular use of Google Meet, Google Docs, and Slides, which allowed for “seamless communication and sharing tasks.”

Sarah continues to use remote learning to engage her students in meaningful ways throughout the new summer term. “Of course nothing can replace in person learning, but I think I’ve found a happy medium.”

Sarah Cullen is emblematic of how New York City’s educators are adapting to these unprecedented times on behalf of our students and families. We thank all of our staff members for helping all of us stay #DOEconnected.


Want to learn more about the Big Apple Awards? Stop by the DOE’s main Big Apple Awards page, and check out this year’s list of inspiring honorees!

The Morning Bell

Official blog for the NYC Department of Education, home of over 1.1 million students across 1,800+ schools

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NYC Department of Education, 2019