My arms were sore and my throat was hoarse. I had literally been standing on top of a desk—guitar in hand—for the past 45 minutes, belting out chord shapes to the unexpectedly huge group of students who had shown up to my afterschool music club. I had taught more kids in a classroom setting before, but what made this challenging was that the moment the students had guitars in their hands, they would start picking and strumming and banging and generally making as much noise as possible. The chaos was palpable.
During that first session, I somehow managed to teach them the G chord and had them practice a few times on their own before clapping to get everyone's attention and announcing that we'd meet again, same time same place, next week. As I started putting my own guitar away, a student from the back of the room—SB, who I knew had gotten in a fight and been suspended just the previous week—scrambled over to me with his twin brother in tow. "Mister, mister, watch this!" Staring intently at his left hand, SB painstakingly placed his fingers one by one on the appropriate frets, then strummed a flawless G chord. The delight radiating from his face afterwards made me forget about how exhausted I was.
I quit teaching this past spring partly because I wanted to have a broader impact than just in my own classroom, and joining 12+ afforded me that opportunity. By developing college readiness and access programming which is then executed by our Fellows, I've been able to reach all 700 or so students across our two partner schools. My aim is to duplicate the success we've had at Kensington Health Sciences Academy (where over 70% of last year's seniors attended a postsecondary institution, compared to 11% three years ago) and make it scalable across multiple school sites.
But these metrics, and "broader impact," though important, are not what make my job so rewarding. In the end, I stay in education because of the individual moments and relationships I get to share with the kids. I stay for that look of triumph on SB's face after learning his first guitar chord, and for the many more afternoons he'll spend learning to create music rather than hanging out on the streets. I stay for RF's wide-eyed nodding when he finally grasped the difference between mass and weight. I stay for MH, who comes to the PLUS Center every day—if only to shake my hand, say hello, and ask how I'm doing.
As a teacher, I came to understand that the opportunity to work with each student was a huge privilege—one that had to be earned through dedication, relationship-building, and openness to learning as much from the student as he/she learns from me. The scope of my role has broadened, but this privilege of working with individual students is still what fuels my work—and though the challenges of each new day sometimes leave me sore and hoarse, a smile on a student's face makes it all worth it.