It’s February. Although the calendar shows it is the shortest month of the year, it sure feels like it’s the longest. Between the winter weather and exhaustion, I have reached maximum on my burn out scale. In City Year, this is called the stormy stage. Feeling defeated and apathetic one cold morning, I walked into study hall to work with one of my students on two math worksheets. Although he is initially perceived as an intimidating young man, I know my student to be a gentle, intelligent and kindhearted individual. He came to
school in the beginning of the year as a repeating 9th grader ready to fail again. He had no idea who I was, what I was doing or how much I was willing to help him. He was put on my focus list second quarter after failing math.
He told me I was the first person to believe in him and take the effort to teach him easier ways to solve multiplication and division problems. On his first monthly goal, he wrote he wanted to be a “multiplication beast” and he successfully is. I have loved watching his confidence grow academically and personally through math, our ManCon program and our Youth in Government program. One of my proudest moments of being a Corps member happened while working with him this cold February day in study hall. He missed a week of school so we were crunched for time to make up work. We walked to all his classes and collected what seemed like a
bottomless amount of worksheets and projects. We were working on two math worksheets and I asked him if he needed a calculator. He replied “no, I want to be able to do this on my own”. I respected his request and sat back, watching him complete the multi-step equations without a calculator. He successfully completed both worksheets and the look of satisfaction on his face was priceless. It was then that he looked at me and said “Miss Pence, thank you for helping me reach my goal. I know I can do this and because of you I believe in myself”.
This was what I needed to recharge my love for this job. The small efforts we can take can lead to huge strides in the future and this is just one example of patience and persistence. After this, I deeply considered doing this a second year but moving up to be a Team Leader. While filling out the application this past week I thought to myself, “am I really this crazy to do another year and take one MORE work?”. I guess the answer is yes- my Senior Corps application has been submitted! My stormy stage is finally over 🙂
I have been thinking a lot about my job lately. I’ve been thinking about my success, my students success, and if my 900 hours of community service have been worth something. Last week I was filled with discouragement. Our community lost a student Tuesday evening that sent a ripple through the entire City Year Corps, staff, and students across Columbus. The accident involved a gun, friends, and a basement. Although the accident was non-violent, the matter at hand is stiller larger than any of us can handle. I felt like what I was doing could never change anything about the social environment my students live in, the poor education they are receiving, or the countless barriers that society puts upon them. My team was asked by our administration to “do something” for our students. But what does that mean? How am I supposed to understand their lives after 5 months? I don’t and I probably never will. Instead, I decided to be the best thing I can be to them- a support system.
Last Friday we met as a Corps to discuss unfortunate event and how we can build from it. I was recharged with hope and determination to make an impact on my students lives. The weekend brought much needed rest and laughter, but Monday quickly arrived as it always does. MLK Day of Service was the one time this year we were given the opportunity to march for equality through downtown Columbus. As I was walking, I was thinking about the courage and empowerment that my co-workers and friends have. As we reached the end of our march, my optimism was higher than ever.
When I returned to school Tuesday, I took the opportunity to tell each of my students how much potential they have. One student told me that I was the first person to tell her that she was worth something. After she told me that, I again thought about the 5 months we have been in school. I have grown to love my students and their talents but how can I, a stranger, see their worth more than their parent or guardian? Then I realized why I am at Mifflin High School. I love interacting with my kids every day. Watching and helping them grow, academically and personally, has been the best thing I have ever done. I have found my passion, and I don’t intend on letting it go.
The unfortunate passing of Nelson Mandela led me on a journey of discovery about this amazing individuals life. I have always admired Mandela, specifically his insight concerning social issues. City Year tackles the social issue regarding education. In the beginning of our year of service, we establish “I Serve” statements that summarize why we decided to dedicate a year to national service. My “I serve” statement is about the power of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, a term borrowed from the Zulu tribe of South Africa, means “I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours.”
The theory conveys an indispensable spiritual certainty about the world: we are all connected to each other through invisible webs of interdependence. We share a collective world and a mutual purpose, and the small struggles of the few effect the population as a whole. I believe that the power of interdependence can truly change the world. However, we must get past the basic barriers that hold us back from being one humanity; race, religion, etc. Practicing cultural humility is essential for our own awareness of the world and ethnic education.
From Mandela’s autobiography, he believes that “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Mandela proved this web of interdependence and love when he held a conference on Civil Society in Cape Town in 2001. Mandela extended an invitation to Clinton, who accepted and brought along a delegation from the US, which included representatives from City Year Inc. From this, City Year South Africa was established in 2005. This is a concept I am trying to engrave into my work with students. Most students have preconceived feelings towards certain cultures, which is only holding them back from genuine appreciation of the world around them. If I can open up that barrier of acceptance, there are countless possibilities to what they can achieve.
As I quickly approach my 23rd birthday, I was asked a question, “How has your 22nd year of life been?” I can honestly say I have never been asked that before. At first, I was speechless and replied with a simple, unadorned answer. Recently, I have been thinking about this question more in depth. Graduating from college, spending an amazing year traveling from D.C. to New Hampshire and meeting incredible people along the way have all left me feeling humbled and grateful, but I never took the time to think about how much this year of service will change me. When I applied to City Year, I could only imagine this opportunity as a one-way street. After completing a mere three out of ten months of service, I have noticed a change within myself. I have been blessed with wonderful mentors in my life, which I value tremendously. However, I never understood how valuable they are until I became a mentor myself. Every day I can see my actions being reflected in my students. Whether its academic or behavioral, I have been given this amazing opportunity to show kids that their value does not decrease based off of another persons inability to see their worth. That feeling is irreplaceable and priceless. I am reminded of this weekly at our training sessions and meetings with my coworkers and I love it. I can feel my confidence building as a leader, role model, and an adult. So when my 24th birthday rolls around (Yikes!), I can hopefully reflect on this experience and be even more grateful for everything that I have given and, more importantly, received.
Here are some pictures from this year!
Expectancy. What an ambiguous term. A high expectation vs. low expectations, how high is high and how low is low? Do I expect a lot from my students? Yes. Do they expect a lot from me? Absolutely. Despite a word full of vague undertones, I find myself using it lot. Maybe it is because a lot was expected out of me when I was in high school, and therefore I expect that much from them. In reality, that is not possible.
City Year and our partner, Diplomas Now use a lot of incentives. I honestly do not support, or fully understand. Why should I have to bribe a 15 year old to turn in his/her homework? Why should I have to bribe a student to sit quietly for 5 minutes? Not to swear? Throw some sort of office supply? Shouldn’t these behaviors be expected in a classroom setting? The answer is no.
Society and pop culture have implemented an irreplaceable image of these types of behavior. I am consistently disrespected, have books thrown, desks flipped and fights break out but I can’t help ask why? Why do my students have more respect for someone who raps about violence and drugs than a girl who got shot in the face standing up for her education? I guess that I will never understand, because I cannot relate to their tribulations. However, that does not mean I’m not willing to listen and learn. I recognize that my students do not have an easy life, but they can control how their lives will turn out regardless of the pre-determined route they have been supplied with. But until then, my expectations will remain high and realistic because I have confidence in them and, hopefully, they will begin to have high expectations of themselves.
I would be lying if there weren’t a day when I walked out of my school and thought to myself “why did I decide to do this?” This job is one of the most challenging ones I have ever had, both mentally and physically. From 6:45 when we arrive at school to greet the first student who walks in the building to 4:30 when the last students leave, I am in constant contact with students. Of course, the little we get paid doesn’t help either. But days like today helped me recall the initial passion and desire to apply for this program.
Before school even started, I was told that I would have two substitutes. In my school, substitutes equal overwhelming chaos. The day progressed and I simply pulled groups of focus list students out of class to do work and escape the madness. But by the last class, my patience was running out, my exhaustion was prominent, and my brain was wearied. The substitute walked into the room and was instantaneously afraid of all my students. Clearly she was in the wrong environment. As crazy as they as they may seem, my students are harmless. However, she begged me to stay in the class and help…although she did not contribute to the class at all. This was when my students surprised me the most this whole year. All of the hours I spend discussing behavior, discipline, and academic performance, I could finally see a difference. I barely had to ask my class to remain in their seats or sit quietly during silent reading, which was unheard of in the beginning of the year. Sure, a few got out of hand at times. But a simple “Please sit down and get back to your work” was obeyed. I was shocked. I never realized how much respect my students had for me until I was the only one in charge of all 25 of them.
Today was a day where I reconnected with my passion for education and children. Sure, some days are more difficult than others, but what is important is the long-term impact I have on 25 students. I was always told leading by example and being a positive role model is one of the most important things an adult can do. After today, I can truly believe it.
One of my favorite mottos of City Year is “seek to be as inclusive as possible”. Everyone can recall a time where they felt the complete opposite, excluded. For me, it was my four years in college. Sure, hundreds of people claim that my school is welcoming, but there is an equally large amount of people who claim the opposite. My college was unique in its history of secret societies, sororities, and other organizations. I learned a lot going through processes of all these organizations. But most importantly, I learned to be inclusive. I often found myself trying so hard to impress people who I thought were already my friends. After graduating, I can look back on it all and realize how silly it all was. Sure, it’s great to have secrets that connect you to others and to different things. But do people really step back and look at the harm it causes others? I would think that that is something that rarely occurs. It’s easy to get caught up in the elitist satisfaction of being involved in something, but not admiring who a person is a whole is disheartening. City Year allows me to feel the involvement I have been craving for years. It provides me with the opportunity to fully exert my leadership potential with an unbelievable amount of support. This support comes from my fellow Corps members and the whole City Year community and in order to build that community, inclusivity is a must. A purposeful and inclusive community is more than the sum of its parts; it’s about letting everyone in and keeping no one out. Today was a special day where I was reminded of this. Always remember the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.
Lately I have been thinking about what it means when people reference “their 20s”. Soon, I will be turning 23. Now, I understand that 23 is only the beginning of this vast 10 year adventure. Some think it’s the last hoorah before becoming a “true” adult, to others it’s deciding on marriage dates and baby names. The persistent media of going out into the world, traveling, and frankly, not caring about a damn thing or finding the love of your life and getting engaged has consumed social media. We are constantly being sucked into the gravity of social standards when we forget that we are free to control our own journey but how does one choose? In May, it seemed like I could not go a day without someone asking me what I was doing after college. My usual response was the details of whatever application I was filling out at that time. One day, I had a liberating epiphany; why do I need to settle down and begin my life now? This is when I felt truly spontaneous. Out of all the haphazard decisions I have made, I am happy that I did not conform to the pressure of finding a “real job”.
In the past three years, I have traveled to France, spent a semester in DC, a summer in New Hampshire and now, I’m giving a year of national service. To say that all of these decisions have impacted my life is an understatement. There is a quote that states, “You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place”. This is exactly how I have been feeling lately. Some people come briefly into your life, with others; you grow up and grow apart. However, it is always satisfying to explore a new destination and grow as an individual. Thus, I need to let me age stop controlling me and live impulsively (yet responsibly!). After all, isn’t life too short for anything else?
City Year has great founding stories. Our founding stories are creative, inspirational reminders to help keep us focused and motivated. One of my favorite stories is called The Starfish Story. In this story, a young girl was walking along the beach and discovered that thousands of starfish had been washed up during a storm. The little girl began throwing the starfish back into the ocean one by one. A man approached her and asked what she was doing, told her that she can’t possibly save all the starfish, and that she could not make a difference. After a few moments, she picked up another starfish, threw it into the ocean and told the man that she made a difference to that one.
I love this story for several reasons. First, I love it for its reminder to be perseverant. Second, I love it for the reminder of my ability to help children. My students struggle with many aspects with life outside of school, which greatly affect their course performance. Everyday, I see and hear different situations that my students are faced with. However, I must remember that I hold the power to make a transformation in a child’s life every single day. The other day, I worked with a student for hours studying for a math test and catching up on work. Today, I was told his grade went up 10%. The reaction of joy and confidence from him was priceless. The past few days, I realized his self-empowerment had increased and there was a new instilled sense of idealism. Our handbook claims “the idealism of youth is a powerful force for leading change in the world”. This quote emphasizes that this characteristic is incredibly valuable in my students because when they succeed, they can encourage others to do so as well. That reaction is a powerful motivator to my work. I may not be able to change everything that I dream of when it comes to working at an inner-city school, but the small differences I can make, even in one student, are worth it.
One key element I have learned about my job with City Year is keeping a positive perspective. A perspective is a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view. Maintaining an optimistic perspective with a reachable outcome in mind truly transforms the whole perception of the working environment.
This week I received my focus list of students that I will be working with this semester. I began pulling out students to assist with them with math and English. The students responded well to this and, today, a couple asked if they could join. I was so happy to see my students exuding effort towards their studies and truly working hard to understand the material. I am beginning to feel the trust between my students and me, which was the first hill I had to climb with them. I was able to do this by showing them that I know they can succeed and by simply being courteous. In a time where violence is pervasive and civility is sometimes uncommon, being kind and positive are powerful elements to change the environment around us. I hope to teach my students the value in maintaining a clear perspective to build a sense of community, interconnectedness among our class, and create a ripple which will allow them to teach others this characteristic. Lincoln once said, “we can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses”, and I could not agree more 🙂