Applying to Teach For America was easy. I’m not saying getting in was simple, and I’m definitely not saying that the extensive amount of work required throughout the application process was a walk in the park — what was easy was determining that this organization, this cause, was aligned entirely with the vision I had for myself following my college graduation.
Getting placed in a preschool classroom, however, was not. In the uncertainty prior to my acceptance to the 2012 corps, I imagined a wide array of possibilities: getting in, not getting in, getting placed in a region I wanted, getting placed in a region I’d never expected — but one thing was a constant, and that was the notion that I would relay my English degree into impacting the lives of students through Shakespeare and similes, persuasion and prose.
And then I got placed in a classroom that views literacy through a student’s ability to recognize letters of the alphabet and blend syllables into words; the names that I’d once imagined written across the tops of essays were now the crowning achievement, and just writing that name was a sign of kindergarten preparedness. I acknowledge the fact that the achievement gap often begins prior to a student’s even entering school and recognize that a strong foundation in education will significantly increase a young man or woman’s ability to graduate high school or go to college. But even in the overwhelming joy I felt at my acceptance to TFA, a small part of me was crestfallen at the slightly tarnished ideal image of myself that I had whimsically created.
In the weeks leading up to my time on the west coast, numerous elements of the pre-work ascertained the importance of ECE and highlighted the exciting chance I had to mold the lives of my young students. The preschool teacher can be just as influential on the child as the parent or caregiver, and the opportunity is immense to foster deep, fundamental change in the way an entire family focuses on education. But as I spoke with fellow soon-to-be Bay Area teachers at Induction, I realized that I hadn’t entirely shed my slight frustration with the fact that this placement seemed so disjointed from my expectations. And while I typically hate disclaimers, I want to quickly digress to note that I am fully aware of the fact that this minute complaint is nothing compared to the plights of the communities in which TFA works. As the news so readily reminds us, being a college graduate with a job is a rarity these days, and being one who is enthusiastic about that work is even more exceptional. So don’t take my brief internal conflict as an example of being ungrateful; I am enthusiastically accepting the challenges before me and am willingly entering a preschool classroom as a humble newcomer to these cities that have welcomed me into their children’s lives.
That being said, today I walked into the school that will be my training ground for the next 5 weeks; though it was child-free, there was something special in seeing the setting of what will hopefully be great change, both in my students and in my self. The concrete made it feel more concrete, if you will, and somehow in that moment I began to have my first realization as to just what it means to have a vision.
My fear that fellow teachers would see my pre-K placement as a glorified babysitter was not dictated by their expectations of me, but by my concerns regarding the work itself. The vitality of the services being provided by this school in Los Angeles and the school that would eventually (well, hopefully) hire me in the Bay is present in every piece of work hanging on the wall, every story told by a teacher with clear pride. And not pride in themselves, but justified, contagious feelings of worth attributed to the students and the work they were doing in their classrooms. I will be molding the lives of high school graduates next year — they just don’t know it yet, and when the Class of 2027 moves the tassel on their mortarboard in some small way, I’ll have hopefully made an impact. I’m not deceived by their big eyes or sticky fingers, and I’m not going to be distracted by their obvious precious tendencies and naive perception of the world around them. I am going to set high expectations, I am going to commit myself to their futures, and I am going to bring them to the threshold of their abilities with everything I can muster. They may be young, but they are mighty, and they will know and understand that they have every right to have access to brilliance, the ability to self-determine their interests, and the fortitude to overcome obstacles. Sure, finger paints and building blocks may not have been the tools I initially predicted in the upcoming fight I am delving into against educational inequity. But with everything I can muster, I am certain that though my students may be cute and their minds malleable, they will be aware of the fact that they deserve a future — a future brimming with hope, opportunity, and a desire to continue learning more.