As I tried to squeeze myself into a blue plastic chair five sizes too small, I looked up toward the board to listen to the lesson the teacher had planned. She brought out her box of multi-colored Expo markers and began writing on the whiteboard. Some of the students watched her excitedly, while others played with their shoelaces or the inside of their nose. The teacher finally finished and turned around to announce to the class that today they were going to be learning about using polite terms. As she spoke, her frame partially blocked my view of the board. Once she was done speaking, I managed to pry myself out of the chair, and I too began walking around, seeing if I could be of any assistance. As I knelt down beside one young girl sporting pigtails and Converse, I noticed that she had picked “you’re welcome” as her polite term, but had made the mistake of using the possessive “your” instead. I did my best to explain to a five-year-old the difference between the two versions. The girl looked up at me with her big brown eyes and a look of pity crossed her face. “Ms. Hailey,” she said, “Did you look up at the board? ‘Cause that’s how you know how to spell it.” She quickly went back to her work, a look of slight disbelief at my stupidity still stuck on her face. I turned my attention back to the board, and sure enough, in big bold red marker, the teacher had written out “your welcome.”
This was not the first time I had noticed that the teacher had made a mistake like this. In a newsletter, she wrote that the students were working on their letters so that they would become “a custom” to writing. You could, of course, argue that these sorts of mistakes are trivial and insignificant, but for me they point to a larger issue.
Prior to participating in the Teach NYC Winter Study Program, I, though I would have never stated this explicitly, believed elementary school teaching to be a vocation I would never pursue. Lower education teaching is usually a job without much prowess: “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
Many of the children in the class that I was teaching came from broken homes with bad divorces, foster families and court rulings haunting their every step. If children were throwing tantrums, it rarely had anything to do with a Lego brick their classmate had taken from them. A cry in this classroom was a cry for help. A tear was a tear for the frustration of growing up in such instability. And a scream was a release of a little bit of anger at the hand they’d been dealt in this world. A bad night at home meant a bad day at school. And for this, you can’t blame them. But you can help them. You can teach them how to deal with it, how to express these feelings of injustice in a healthy and productive way. You can take them through it, reason with them and lead them back into the classroom with newfound confidence. In a world as uncertain and confusing as theirs, you can serve as a lighthouse, providing a mantle of light over a dark horizon. You can give them the best education possible so that when they grow up, their kids will have the privileges that they never could have.
The reason the teacher’s mistakes got to me so much was that these kids don’t have many chances to succeed. They are adorable, smart, funny, engaged kids, and yet the deck is so stacked against them. One of the teachers at my school confessed to me that she was often embarrassed to tell others that she was a teacher. People often assume that being a lower education teacher means that person is not smart. This is a terrible stigma to have. Education should not only be stressed later on in life, it should be stressed at every level. Teaching college courses is difficult, obviously, but so is trying to teach a sleep-deprived five-year-old that a certain arrangement of squiggles has not only a specific set of corresponding sounds but also a definition that applies to the larger world. The teachers and educators that I had the privilege to speak to in New York were some of the most driven people I’d ever met. They were changing lives in the most literal sense. They were giving kids who had seemingly no shot in this world a fighting chance.
We, at Williams, are very well-educated people, and yet I think you’d be hard pressed to find many students who are planning to go into lower education teaching. It doesn’t have the same glory that most other jobs have. It doesn’t pay as well as finance, and it doesn’t sound as impressive as being a doctor, yet I can’t express strongly enough what an important task it is. If more people from colleges like Williams entered the education system, things could change. I know this seems like a grand statement, so I’ll boil it down to this: Try teaching for a bit. Do Teach for America, or other similar programs, and I truly believe that the minute you step into that world, you’ll see what an issue education is in this country, and how profound the impact teaching can have on not only you, but the millions of students out there who need an intelligent, caring teacher to change their
Hailey Newbound ’16 is from Williamstown, Mass. She lives in Garfield.