As discussed in my previous post, I applied for the NYC Teaching Fellows program. Part of the application process involved responding to two essay prompts. Below are my responses, both of which, I believe, helped me get the interview.
1. Nearly all Fellows are hired to teach in ‘high-need’ schools that are located in low-income communities. Why do you want to teach specifically in a high-need school in New York City? Why do you believe you will be an effective teacher in a high-need school?
With brutal honesty–and tremendous risk–I admit that when I began my application for this fellowship program, I did not want to teach in a high-need school. Not “specifically,” anyhow. Though I was not averse to teaching in such an environment, it was not my priority to aim for it. I had spent years searching for a career path; the mere realization that I wanted to be a teacher was enough of a personal breakthrough. Although my initial intentions did not align perfectly with those of the program’s ideal candidate, I began this application anyway.
In my first drafts, I filled spaces left void of actual experience in high-need schools with distracting declarations about the woes of the uneducated poor, proclaiming it was my duty to right those wrongs. I preached about the injustices of the public school system, and of society in general. I made a desperate attempt to convince you why I could not teach anywhere but a high-need school. However, in doing so, I started to convince myself.
The more I tried explaining why I would have a greater effect on students in a low-income community, the more I realized I actually could. Middle- and upper-class students will still reap the other benefits of their already-privileged lives to ensure a successful future, even without awe-inspiring teachers. On the other hand, such a teacher in a high-need school could be the very reason for someone’s successful future. Although the words I wrote in my initial draft came not from a long-held passion but instead from a necessity to impress you, the beliefs behind them turned out to be sincere.
What ultimately led me to discard my first essay was a conversation I had with my father during this process. My father was a teacher, one of several in my family. I have spent many a family gathering listening to them talk about the difficulties of motivating their middle-class students for whom graduation, college, and careers were all but guaranteed. In a recent conversation, my father contrasted those sentiments with stories of teachers he knows that love teaching at inner-city schools. The children at those high-need schools grew up with an intimate understanding of unstable living and the innate knowledge that hard work can help escape it. This comparison had reinforced my aforementioned epiphany.
My father also reassured me that despite my lack of specific experience in high-need schools, I do have experience adapting to new communities quickly, including low-income ones. I spent a summer in college studying at a university in Mexico while living with a host family. I spent another summer driving around the country, befriending strangers, and sleeping on their couches. I relocated to Honolulu after graduation with neither a job nor a residence for the sake of learning how to start a life in a different place. After I had settled in and created a new home-away-from-home, I started all over again in New York City. My father reminded me that my ability to adapt to new environments and connect with different people would make it easy for me to find my niche in a high-need school.
Although applying to this program is what led to my desire to teach in a high-need school, instead of the other way around, I am an ideal candidate nonetheless. The challenges of connecting with students in a high-need school might be plentiful, but they are challenges I now feel ready to accept, having realized both the potential for a more rewarding experience and my ability to adapt to new environments.
2. What is the greatest challenge you expect to encounter in raising student achievement in a high need school? What do you believe would be your role, as a teacher, in addressing this challenge? Explain how your past experience informs your response to these questions. If applicable, please include relevant personal, work, or volunteer experience with high-need communities.
Attempting to raise student achievement in high-need schools will be tremendously challenging without first dispelling the idea that certain people can only amount to certain positions in life. We must raise the bar set low by society to raise the achievement of the students affected by it. If, for example, a lower-class minority was taught to believe that she can do no better than becoming a manager at a local store, why then would she care about learning anything unrelated to such a path?
My role as a teacher will be to show my students that while what they learn might not be relevant to the futures they expect, the act of learning is useful in itself. Not everything we teach them serves merely as direct career preparation. For example, learning the history of Tammany Hall can prepare an individual against modern-day schemes aimed at the uneducated and impoverished. Understanding how people in different times and different lands overcame oppression can inspire those from low-income communities to see their own lives in a new light. How are they the same? How are they different? How might they overcome a similar problem? While a teacher cannot force students to find the War of 1812 interesting, he or she can find a way to make it relatable. If I can change how they see the world, they will change how they see themselves within it.
Though my experiences with mentoring children–volunteering at an orphanage in Mexico and being a counselor at a Juvenile Arthritis camp in California–are limited to only a handful of summers, I believe my undergraduate degree will be equally useful in preparing me for the teaching world. The Film Studies program at UC Berkeley is closer in curriculum structure to an English program than it is to a traditional, hands-on, filmmaking school. I did not passively watch films, I read them closely to comprehend history, society, artistic theories, and even philosophy. Films were, in short, an educational tool. As such, I would be able to utilize them as a way to introduce subject material to a classroom in an innovating and relatable manner. For example, I recently rewatched broadcast footage of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Although I knew that a great number of people were present at the speech, the sheer volume of the crowd was not apparent until I saw the footage. Visual representation of the crowd conveyed the momentousness of the event more concretely than reported numbers ever did. Film is a part of our everyday life and, thus, is a feasible way to lure students into unfamiliar subject materials with relevant film clips, sparking discussion based off what they saw.
Some might say you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. My father, a lifelong educator, expanded on this, saying that it is a teacher’s duty to create a thirst in his students. By finding innovative ways to present subject material to my students, I could create a thirst in pathways they never even considered, hopefully creating a wider realm of possibility for their futures.