David Peng: Transition From Student to Teacher

“Oh my God, I just failed the Peng test,” someone whispers in the hall, his face gaunt with fear. Almost every Thursday, geometry teacher David Peng’s students are put on trial. At the end of the period, students funnel out of the third floor halls; commotion erupts as students scatter nervously out of the classroom with worry written all over their faces.

At Stuyvesant, Peng is notorious for his difficult geometry class. While he isn’t fully aware of the tough, hardcore reputation he has amongst his students, Peng admits that he strives to push and prepare students to the best of his ability.

As an alumnus of 2006, Peng can certainly relate to the joys, struggles, and pressures that Stuyvesant students face.

Peng admits that he was not the best student, but rather was very average with a strong interest in math. “In middle school, I performed on a high level. I was on the math team and did well in scholastic competitions. Once I got to Stuy, I felt others were ahead of me [and] much smarter and much more hardworking than me,” Peng described.

During his two years teaching at Stuyvesant, Peng has observed students facing the same difficult transition that he made. “Kids realize that this isn’t a walk in the park. This is Stuy,” Peng said. “Students have this moment of realization that they need to get their act together. Some students realize that right away, for some of them it takes one exam, for some it takes the whole semester, and some still have not realized it yet!”

Peng’s parents valued education and made it their goal to make sure their son got into Stuyvesant. “It was not easy for my parents to afford test prep, especially since we came from humble beginnings,” Peng said. “Looking back, I really appreciate their sacrifices.”

Once he got into Stuyvesant, Mr. Peng noticed that his parents backed off. The mindset was that Peng’s parents knew that he was set on a good path to get a great education and make a great career for himself. “[At] Stuy, most of the pressure came from myself [because of] a drive to succeed. This carried over in college. Everything came from within.”

Peng believes students are pushed through test prep. Prep helps kids who can test well but are not necessarily the best students. Once these kids get into Stuyvesant, many tend to stop working hard; they are there because their parents pushed them to get in. Peng observes that this doesn’t mix well in Stuyvesant’s competitive environment. “This serves as an important message to the student body, especially the incoming freshmen. Be at Stuyvesant because you want to be; the journey doesn’t stop once you get in. The journey is about the hard work and the opportunities you take at Stuyvesant once you get in,” he said.

He also remarked on the tunnel vision students tend to have regarding colleges and their futures. “It really doesn’t matter what school you go to, what college. I know people who graduated from Ivys and are really regretting their jobs. They aren’t happy. I also have friends who went local and are now happy and prosperous,” Peng said. “It doesn’t matter where you go. At Stuy, you have more opportunities to get to where you want to go and people should make the most out of this.”

In terms of extracurriculars, Peng was very involved in Red Cross. Initially, he pursued it because it would look good on his college application. Over time, he found that he really enjoyed it. He paddled for the Red Cross dragon boat team and noted it as a highlight of his high school career.

Peng was also on the Ultimate Frisbee team during his senior year, but couldn’t play for most of the season due to an injury. “I wasn’t someone who tried to take on as many extracurriculars as possible, but wanted to do the ones I was really interested in,” Peng reflected. “This is something I really hope students understand. It’s not about how many extracurriculars they do, it’s about the quality of the type of work that they want to do.”

“SING! was totally around when I was at Stuy,” Peng said with a smile. He fondly described the context of 2006 SING! during his senior year. “There was this curse, that after a certain even number of years, the seniors would always lose. The last three times the seniors lost was in intervals of eight years. During my year, we had to break this curse. It was very, very close, but we won.”

Looking back, Peng really appreciated the energy that SING! brought to Stuyvesant. “It really brought school spirit to a school which could be really demoralizing,” he said. Only taking a minor role in the tech department during senior year, Peng regrets not having been more involved in SING!. “I feel like I missed out, and I really try to encourage students to get involved in SING! because it’s a really big, amazing part of the Stuy experience,” he lamented.  He is content to notice the more performance-oriented plays today, which display the various stage talents and visual arts of the students, versus the more storyline-based shows during his time.

Peng also got his first taste of teaching through extracurriculars when he assisted his friends with calculus concepts at AIS tutoring during his junior year. He pursued math and was proud to complete the rigorous honors math sequence; Peng was in the BC Calculus course while his friends were in the AB course. While his peers were having difficulty with some of the concepts, Peng understood the material and could convey it well. This gave Peng the boost to look into tutoring and teaching. That summer he took part in the Summer Youth Education Program (SYEP), during which he was paid by the city to mentor little kids in a day camp. He also did teacher’s assistant (TA) work for his old SHSAT prep center. This paved the way for his interest in teaching.

Peng attended Carnegie Mellon for his undergraduate education, where he majored in finance. When he entered in 2007, the business industry was booming. “When I was at Carnegie Mellon, there was talk of graduating with a business degree, signing with a company, making a $20,000 bonus, and making $70,000 right off the start,” Peng reflected. “It was a hype that really never materialized.”

This was largely because of a major recession from the Global Financial crisis of 2008; Peng graduated in 2010. The crash led to an absence of jobs. The one thing Peng continued to do every summer was return to New York and do TA work. When he graduated from college, he had teaching to fall back on.

Before coming back to Stuyvesant, Peng taught at the Law and City school, as well as a non-profit school in Queens. Peng says it’s a weird feeling being back at Stuyvesant, especially addressing some of his former teachers by their first names instead of ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’

With his return, Mr. Peng has observed some changes around the school. For one, he has been happy to see an increase in the number of guidance counselors in the school. “Back when I was in school, we only had around three. If you had issues or was overwhelmed with stress, there really wasn’t anyone to talk to. The mindset was like, ‘What do you expect? This is Stuy. Suck it up,’” he said. “Now, there are so many options for students to reach out to when they need help.”

Peng has also noticed a shift in the types of courses offered at Stuy, in addition to a decrease in Stuy’s number of rigorous courses. “A lot of classes are being phased out because the teachers who taught them are no longer here,” Peng said. “[Social Studies teacher George] Kennedy retired last year, and his popular Wall Street class is no longer offered. [Chemistry teacher] Dr. [Zhen Chuan] Li retired, and they took away higher level chemistry courses he brought to the table. Dr. Li was here when I was a student and really set the bar high in the chemistry department.”

Peng’s experiences as a Stuyvesant student have had a huge impact on his approach to teaching. He aims to improve upon the teaching methods he observed during his time at Stuyvesant. To do this, he actively implements new strategies in his teaching style to prepare students and accommodate their needs.

Peng encourages group-centered teaching and collaborative problem-solving. These were emphasized in his graduate program as the best methods of getting students to have balanced interactions. They help students feel more comfortable with addressing their lack of understanding with their peers and teachers. Different students understand things at different times. Students can interact and help each other get a firm grasp on the material in class, while Peng had to go back after a more ‘lecture-based’ class to consult with his teacher when he had difficulty.

In the end, Peng wants to make sure that students are well prepared for the Geometry Regents. With the implementation of the Common Core, the regents now requires students to think critically, surpassing surface-level thinking. Peng says this change was immediately noticeable when average scores dropped significantly. “I feel that, especially at a school as reputable as Stuy, this shouldn’t happen,” Peng said. “These types of hard, complicated thinking-based questions are needed throughout the year for preparation.”

As a result, Peng relies on rigorous testing to determine whether students truly understand concepts. As a student, Peng always found Stuy’s exams to be tough. “I’m really lucky to be teaching [a fifth of the] freshman class. I want to make them understand [that] it just gets harder,” Peng said. “I can really emphasize to students that they need to develop strong study and work habits, as these really carry over.”

Peng also ensures that his students have adequate resources. He gives outlines for exams and offers services such as office hours and after-school help. “Students have really taken advantage of this, and [I] have seen their averages go up. I’m really glad to see this because it must be working,” Peng said.

Peng really feels that his experiences at Stuyvesant have shaped him into the man he is today and have taught him many valuable life skills. “The last two years have been really hectic for me. I got married, had a kid, am teaching in a new school, staying very late, and taking masters classes. All of these [life events] would be very overwhelming,” Peng said. “Stuy taught me time management, it taught me [how] to prioritize, and that I really can’t skim out the quality of my work. I [learned the importance of] putting the effort into all the facets of what I do. At Stuy, I had to multitask and had to stay on top of everything. This carries over throughout college, and you will see the difference. Within the competitive nature of college, you have to be on top of things. Coming from Stuy, you get this advantage. These carry over to life as well. You really don’t see it as a student in high school. But, those experiences and habits carry over.”

Peng has high hopes for his son, Derek. Though Derek is only 15 months old, Peng is already sending him to classes. “My wife and I will support him in anything he is interested in and wants to pursue. We won’t force him into a corner,” Peng said.