Mr. Polazzo: Preparing Stuyvesant Students to Think

Matt Polazzo’s perspective on being a Stuyvesant teacher for 17 years.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Vanessa Man

Hidden in the corner of the Student Union (SU) room is a tiny office with two comfortable couches and a wall covered with a collage of family vacation photos. Government teacher and Coordinator of Student Affairs Matt Polazzo and his family smile down in frozen moments. To the right of his desktop, there are portrait photos of his government students last year and their quotes regarding his class. As I sit down on his couch to begin the interview, SU Vice President Alexa Valentino approaches Polazzo’s office and asks if he has any concerns about the open house event that is going to happen later that day. Polazzo responds, “Alexa, do you think there is anything more you want to do? If everything is going well, I am confident the open house should run smoothly.”

Around Stuyvesant, Pollazo is seen as an intellectual character that works as a strong facilitator, overseeing the SU in general and supervising all major SU events such as SING!. In addition, he challenges the construct of political thought in the classroom. Pollazo has been a teacher at Stuyvesant for 17 years, during which he has taught different levels of social studies. He is currently teaching Western Political Theory and US Government, and he will teach Comparative Government in the Spring.

Polazzo grew up in New York City and attended Saint Ann’s, a small private school in Brooklyn from seventh to 12th grade. The environment of the school was the opposite of Stuyvesant. “The school was very funky, where we called teachers by their first names, and I had 70 kids in my whole graduating class. There were no grades, just written comments,” he said.

From there, he went to Bowdoin College and obtained a Masters degree in Political Science and decided to become social studies teacher.

He was the son of an economics teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School. “Growing up, I always thought teaching was a cool profession, but I didn’t know if I wanted to make a life out of it,” Polazzo said.

After college, he signed up for a program called Teach for America that took high-performing educators and put them in under resourced schools. He was placed at I.S.143 in Washington Heights, where he taught social studies to sixth to eighth graders. Unlike Stuyvesant, I.S. 143 had a largely Dominican student body. “[I strived to be] the teacher I always to wanted to have—approachable and excited about the material,” Polazzo said.

However, Polazzo didn’t get along with the administration. “I preferred a more student-centered model of learning, and the principal wanted something that to me seemed more rigid and authoritarian,” he said. Polazzo left I.S. 143 after two years of teaching, but he still wanted to continue his teaching career.

His father knew Assistant Principal of Social Studies Jennifer Suri and suggested that Polazzo apply for a position for a teacher. “I applied because I knew that Stuyvesant was the best school in the city, and I figured it was worth a shot. I also applied to Brooklyn Tech, and they called me with a job offering 15 minutes after Stuyvesant did.”

Polazzo applied ambitiously, but after his interview with Suri, he remembered her blatantly telling him, “ It’s a really demanding job, and it’s unlikely that we are going to need you.” Then, on the first day of the 2002-2003 school year, Polazzo recalled, “[Suri] called me up and said she had a job for me. [At the time,] I was working for a website that was associated with the Conference Board. It was my job to track down businesses that engaged in socially responsible actions but made money while doing so. I wrote blurbs about them and publicized their good deeds. I quit that job and went on to be a teacher.” But the teacher he was replacing decided to unretire. Later on, around Thanksgiving of 2003, Polazzo replaced a retiring teacher and started working around December of that year, teaching five periods of government classes.

After teaching government for so long, Polazzo still enjoys the course because government is an important blend of multiple aspects he is interested in: philosophy, economics, and aesthetics. In addition, he enjoys teaching government because there is always something new happening.“In my first years of teaching, the Bush-Gore election was happening, and every day, we would have discussions concerning the controversies of the election. Now, with Trump as President, I have students who I taught years ago, emailing me about impeachment and Constitutional crisis. But in order to declare if something is a Constitutional crisis, you need to understand the Constitution, which I want my students to know,” he explained. The evolving, contemporary questions that students ask stimulate the lessons and structure of government class and Western Political Theory, which focuses on the teachings of influential Western philosophers.

For instance, in his Government class, Polazzo acknowledged that he makes the students carry around pocket Constitutions and has them read the document constantly. “We have come to know the strengths and limitations of the document,” he said.“I try to take things [that] seem obscure and boring and strip the mask off and see the power relations that exist underneath it.”

For example, in one of his class lectures, he talked about congressional staffing. He described the class lecture as something that “seems like a really boring thing to talk about. But when you drill down into the topic, you get to these really interesting questions about how laws can only be written by staffers because the members don’t have time to write laws. However, laws need to be very complicated because government is very complicated. So now, something that seems boring, like congressional staffing, is a matter of a conflict of democratic ideas, because ordinary Americans are unable to read the complicated laws written by congressional staff.”

Polazzo makes a great effort to explain the deeper issues of government and how they fit into the bigger picture of society as a whole. He often assigns three or four news articles a week based on major debates happening in the country so that students can be aware of current events. He adds on saying, “Recently, we’ve been talking about gun control and the second Amendment after the Last Vegas attack has occurred, the concept of whether or not hate speech exists and whether NFL players or others should respect the flag. If you want to see the constant changing political climate, just open up the New York Times or Breitbart.”

Western Political Theory, on the other hand, was created by Polazzo. He describes the course as “much more theoretical than the government class. It focuses on the writings of great Western philosophers from Socrates all the way up to Nietzsche.”

It is important to point out that the majority of Polazzo’s students are juniors and seniors who are paving their lives to higher education and often come from immigrant families and have tremendous pressure to go after high-paying jobs. “I hope my students won’t just sleepwalk into a career where they’re not doing it for the right reasons. Sometimes, on Sunday night, people feel the dread going to school the next day, but I honestly never feel that because I like my job,” he said. “I feel blessed to have the opportunity to come into contact with some of the smartest, most interesting kids in New York City and talk to them in the most pivotal moment in their life. It’s fun to be able to teach young people who tend to be more flexible.”

Polazzo believes that this generation’s leaders will be Stuyvesant students who are lifelong learners. “Idealistically, I believe Stuyvesant students should take classes that they thoroughly enjoy. But realistically, students should learn to balance their desire to learn with the need to have a valuable outcome,” he says. “As for advice about life, well that’s hard. Lots of scientific research and personal experience lets us know that to really lead a good life, it is important to maximize on exposure to things you find enjoyable, like spending time on family [and] friends and having amazing experiences and not focus on the acquisition of physical items but still have enough to provide for yourself.”