The halls at P.S. 124 in Manhattan's Chinatown were quiet and smelled like orange air freshener. Summer school was over and Alice Hom, the principal, was showing Juhyung Harold Lee the classroom he will be using this fall.
“This is a little bigger,” he said, walking into the room.
“They’re bigger kids,” Ms. Hom said.
Mr. Lee taught third grade last year but he will now be teaching fifth graders. Early this summer, he did not think he would be coming back at all.
P.S. 124 Yung Wing School was scheduled to lose three teachers this year, if cuts threatened by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg went through. An agreement was brokered between the administration and the union, and there will be no teacher layoffs this year, though 2,186 teachers were "excessed," meaning there is no position for them — yet — in a city school. (Almost 780 other school employees have lost their jobs in budget cuts this year.)
Because of seniority protections, teachers with the least experience would have been the first to go, and Mr. Lee was only in his third year. But there he was this summer, studying his new classroom, imagining the children that will soon fill rows and pass through corridors.
The room looks out on Division Street, and you could hear the trains and traffic passing above on the Manhattan Bridge. Desks and chairs were stacked against a wall and there were four desktop computers. It was hard to picture 31 students in there, but Mr. Lee said he would make it work.
“We’re not going to have a carpet,” he said, comparing the space to his old third-grade classroom. “So there will be an area to sit, but it will just be floor. And then some kids will have to sit at their desks when we’re doing a lesson down there.”
Despite budget cuts that are making the school's classes bigger, Ms. Hom said she is relieved she didn’t have to lay off two other teachers and Mr. Lee.
“He is definitely someone who is a learner,” she said. “And he has a lot of great technology wizardry that we can definitely use. He’s also a good male figure for a lot of our male students, and that’s important as well.” When Mr. Lee, 26, learned at the end of June that the city budget deal avoided any layoffs, he had already been accepted to law school at the University of California at Berkeley and had started making plans to attend. He had found a place there to rent, and started packing up the belongings in his Upper East Side apartment. But he wasn’t really ready to leave his school, he said, and was relieved to learn he could stay.
“I don’t love a lot of things about my job, but I love what I do,” he said. “I love working with kids." Mr. Lee added: "It’s something a lot of people still wish that they had the opportunity to do, and I’m very fortunate to have that opportunity when teachers are being laid off across the country. When teachers are being excessed here in the city. When a lot of teachers are kind of being very gently, or not so gently, nudged out of the door.”
Mr. Lee grew up in Rhode Island, the son of Korean immigrants. He said his father is a professor of civil engineering and his mother is a nurse, and he credits their success to a good education. He went to Brown University as an undergraduate and became involved in summer teaching programs in Providence and New York City.
He earned his master's degree at Teachers College at Columbia in 2008, choosing not to take an alternative (and less expensive) route to certification, like Teach for America, because he wanted more time to learn his craft, he said. He taught fifth grade in Queens for two years before losing his position to budget cuts. He then wound up at P.S. 124 in Chinatown last fall. But he applied to law school soon after because he worried about more cutbacks.
Mr. Lee said he is aware of how that strategy sounds to longtime educators, who may accuse him of lacking commitment. But he insists his goal was to earn a law degree to help him join the education policy makers whose decisions he often questions, because most of them lack teaching experience.
“I don’t want to be told what to do when I know it’s bad for kids,” he said. “And I want to be part of the process — of a more collaborative process — by which schools can be governed.”
Mr. Lee acknowledges his parents had hoped he would go to law school this fall. But he says they fully support his decision to return to teaching.
When Mr. Lee returned to P.S. 124 in August for a few meetings, he was clearly excited to be back. He looked over the newly released third-grade test scores for 2011 and saw that most of his pupils from last year had passed. Two who scored poorly were encouraged to go to summer school.
“It’s the kids who don’t pass that you feel really bad about,” he said. “But the kids who do really well, it’s not what I’m hanging my hat on. There’s a lot more throughout the year to be proud of than that.”
Mr. Lee said he doesn’t know if he will stay on past next year. He worries the city will go through another round of budget cuts. His principal wanted to give him tenure, but says she wasn’t allowed by her superintendent. Even though he had three years of teaching under his belt, he had only been in her school for a year, so under the rules he does not yet qualify for tenure.
With his future once again in doubt, Mr. Lee said he is keeping his options open. He deferred his acceptance to law school for a year.
If the best option "is to continue to be a teacher, then that makes sense to me,” he said. “If it’s to try and be an A.P." — an assistant principal — "or principal, then that makes sense to me. But if I feel like I can be more effective and be the best advocate for children by going and pursuing another degree and trying to effect change on another level, then I’m going to do that.”
Next week, Mr. Lee will have 31 fifth graders who are counting on him to make a difference this year.