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When The Bell Rings, This Teacher Flies

Teacher Joshua Weinstein at the controls of a Cessna 172 Skyhawk above northern New Jersey. He says he had wanted to be a pilot since he was in first grade.
Elissa Nadworny

Our Secret Lives of Teachers series continues as we head into the sky with a social studies teacher with a passion for flying.

Above the hum of the propeller, Joshua Weinstein calls my attention to the Boonton Reservoir, which provides water for Jersey City. We're flying about 2,000 feet above the tree-lined streets of northern Jersey, the Manhattan skyline visible through the haze in the distance.

As Weinstein increases our speed to battle the headwind, I can finally see what he was so excited to show me: Directly below us are the geometric buildings that make up Brooklawn Middle School — and Weinstein's social studies classroom.

Just a few hours earlier, I was sitting in that classroom, watching Weinstein and his seventh-graders discuss the upcoming elections. They were looking over the state's paper ballots, reviewing each candidate.

When the bell rang, Weinstein looked over at me: "You ready to go fly?"

He shooed the students out, and we headed for Century Air, a small airline training company located at Essex County Airport, about a 15-minute drive from the school.

Joshua Weinstein with his seventh-graders at Brooklawn Middle School in Parsippany, N.J.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Joshua Weinstein with his seventh-graders at Brooklawn Middle School in Parsippany, N.J.

When we arrive, he leads me out on the tarmac to the Cessna 172 Skyhawk we'll be flying in today.

He shows me how to get in the plane and then climbs into the pilot's seat.
As he starts the engine and taxis out onto the runway, Weinstein points out the exits and the sick bag — just in case.

There's a checklist attached to the control wheel, and he's constantly saying each item out loud: "Brakes, check. Engine, check. Oil pressure, check."

After an early evening flight, Weinstein pushes the Cessna back into its parking spot.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
After an early evening flight, Weinstein pushes the Cessna back into its parking spot.

After a short back and forth with the control tower, we're racing down runway 28, gaining enough speed to lift off.

"It may get a bit bouncy," he warns. But he's smiling.

Weinstein says he had wanted to be a pilot ever since he was in the first grade. Instead of reading chapter books, he would read and memorize flight manuals. He dreamed of being a commercial pilot, but by the time he got to high school, he had decided to go into teaching.

"It's not that teaching was a backup plan," he explains. He loves kids, he loves teaching, and his father was a teacher. And when it came time to pick a career, Weinstein followed in his father's footsteps.

So for eight years now, he has taught social studies — covering colonization to the Civil War — while his passion for airplanes and flying has never faded. Any time he's not in the classroom, you can find him in the cockpit.

Whatever It Takes

Here's the big problem, especially for someone on a teacher's salary: Flying is expensive. Renting the plane, fuel, insurance — it all adds up.

So to offset the costs, Weinstein works part-time at Century Air, the flight school and training facility. He takes out the trash, he cleans the toilets, he restocks the soda in the fridge, and he washes the airplanes.

"Every cent I make goes back into flying," he says. In the summer, he'll work five days a week, but once school starts, he drops down to two evenings.

After we fly over the school, Weinstein turns the plane sharply so I can get a clear view of the landscape below in the late afternoon sun. It really is breathtaking from 1,700 feet.

Weinstein loves to share these moments: He is constantly inviting teachers, students and parents to fly with him. He has brought up a former principal and a fellow teacher's extended family, and for a quick weekend jaunt he sometimes treats his wife to breakfast in Pennsylvania. He describes it as "an expensive pancake."

He says his friends are always asking him why he cleans toilets when he has a master's degree.

"Nothing is beneath me," he explains. "But more importantly, it pays for flights."

As we look out over northern New Jersey, it's obvious he's in his element.

He says he doesn't really teach his students about flying, but he still wants them to know about his love for the air — and the need for them to find their own thing.

"Passion for anything is important," he says, "and I want my students to know that."

And, he acknowledges, for seventh-graders, flying a plane still seems a bit like magic.

As we make the turn and head back to the airport, Weinstein lets me take over the controls for a while. The steering is super touchy, and without even realizing it, we're suddenly veering sharply to the left.

Even so, I get it. It's a rush. Out the window, I can see cars streaming onto the freeway and students crossing the street on their walk home from school.

Weinstein takes back the controls as we make our final approach. The landing is so smooth I hardly notice we aren't flying anymore.

And just like that, the rush, the feeling of being free is gone. As we taxi back to the hangar, the flight is already becoming a memory.

I'd love to do this again, I tell him. He knows: "It's addicting and amazing."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.
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