A couple weeks ago, I felt very proud and overwhelmed…and old.
I was lucky enough to travel to California to see my first class of former students graduate from high school. It was an amazing feeling to see all of these first-generation high school graduates cross the stage and to see their parents’ delight in what their children had accomplished. Many of my kids’ parents have sacrificed so much to get their kids a good education, and it was a great privilege to be able to witness their joy.
But let me back up a bit.
From 2007 – 2010, I taught at Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose, California. The school serves minority students, all of them receiving free or reduced lunch. I looped with my 35 students through 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade, and I taught all of the subjects. It had been a failing school for years, and when I arrived, it had just been restarted by the district (meaning everyone but the nurse and secretary had been let go and replaced).
During my time teaching, the kids were incredibly far behind. The average reading level for my students was kindergarten level, and they were more than a year behind in math. Many kids couldn’t access the district mandated texts, so we had to create our own curriculum. There were also behavior issues, because the kids had not experienced a lot of structure in the classroom.
Despite these obstacles, teaching was incredibly rewarding. I had one student with severe learning issues and who was very violent because he couldn’t articulate his feelings or frustrations. The only thing that would make him smile was talking about the Oakland Raiders. So, I bought a giant Raiders pennant and assigned each kid in the classroom a certain number of sight words they had to teach him. Once he learned 100 words, he would receive the pennant. I assumed it would take him several months to learn the words, but through working with his peers, he learned them all in about six weeks. When he came in the room one day, they gave him an unprompted standing ovation, and he cried as we gave him his pennant. Life wasn’t perfect after that day, but it truly transformed my classroom. My students learned to be compassionate, that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and that we were a team that wasn’t leaving anyone behind.
One time, we attended science camp for three days in the Marin Headlands. It was a very affluent camp that we had raised money to attend. All of the other students came from high-performing school districts, and while they wore North Face jackets in the rain, we wore giant black trash bags. When we first arrived at camp, we did not have the requested amount of chaperones, because our parents couldn’t take that sort of time off from their jobs. The camp counselors were very concerned about “these kids” not having enough adults around to monitor them. For three days, we hiked, we camped, we sang songs, we identified plants, we met sea creatures, we made our beds, and we had the best time. Right before we left, the camp director told us that our kids were their all-time favorites because of their passion to soak up everything the camp had to offer. The kids didn’t know it, but they were teaching others, while having the time of their lives.
My kids’ families were incredible. Every year started with a home visit in the first month of school and then another visit throughout the school year. They had my phone numbers and knew they could call at any time. Each family was told where their child was and also how we were going to get their child on grade level. Newsletters were sent home and translated into Spanish and Vietnamese every week. Parents had to sign off on reading logs and homework. I knew every aunt, uncle, and cousin by the end of my three years.
Fast forward to the present. These children, who came from a failing school and had tremendous odds stacked against them, are all high school graduates. Every single one of them has a plan, whether it is enrolling in college or junior college, employment (including some very cool apprenticeships with local companies), or enlisting in the U.S. military. I could not be more proud.
I wanted share my story to help illustrate what policy looks like in the classroom and why policy is so important. There are times when I am in a room, as Stand Indiana’s Government Affairs Director, and I am the only person with classroom experience. I try to remind myself to push legislators and stakeholders to think about implementation, not just the big idea.
At Stand, we work to implement key policies that have the greatest impact for children. The policies I saw firsthand to be invaluable were:
- Parent involvement is critical to student success.
- All kids can learn and will rise to high expectations.
- Reading by 4th grade is critical, and it is important that schools have a plan for working with ELL students.
I especially feel strongly about the power of parents. Knowing that my parents had my back allowed be to be a more effective teacher. My kids knew that we were all on the same team, which gave me a lot of credibility with them as well. I also worked with parents about advocating for their kids, which helped them make the adjustment to middle school and which led to one child being transitioned from special education to the mainstream classroom.
Ultimately, education and student success can’t happen without advocacy – parent advocacy, teacher advocacy, legislative advocacy, and community advocacy. If you agree, join us in our mission today.