A Spartan Fights for Educational Equality

Liz McNeil graduated from Michigan State in August, 2006. She is a Citizen Schools Teaching Fellow Alum.  I cherish the memories I have from Michigan State. From working in the MSU football office as a Spartan Aide and helping recruit prospective players, to living in the dorms in South Complex, to dominating MSU intramural dodgeball and football leagues. They are all special memories. A particularly special one occurred when we took a road trip to Madison, WI, when MSU played Wisconsin my freshman year. It was a close game, but the Spartans pulled out the win!

During my senior year at MSU, I took a very impactful Introduction to Special Education course. It covered the history of special education and went deeper into many disabilities. I loved it because it included a lot of field experiences and really spoke to the idea that education, especially special education, is about focusing on what students CAN do and building up those skills. Rather than focusing on what may limit students. It also led me to see quality education as the huge social justice issue of my generation.

I realized that I really wanted to teach, but was very close to finishing my liberal arts degree so I graduated with my BA. Then I starting working in Lansing Public Schools as a paraprofessional and running the tutoring program at the Hannah Community Center to gain more experience. I was offered positions at a few different teaching fellowships around the country, but chose Citizen Schools because of their unique focus on engaging the community in the learning process as Citizen Teachers as well as the emphasis on hands on learning.

During my fellowship I worked at the Umana Middle School, an expanded learning day school, in East Boston, MA. I taught a team of students for the last 2.5 hours of the school day in various apprenticeships including urban gardening, cooking, law, architecture design and healthy living. In the mornings, my first year, I worked in a 7th/8th grade AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) classroom assisting a teacher with the curriculum and supporting student learning.  My second year I was a full time teaching fellow at the school and coordinated the recruitment effort of volunteers, set up partnerships with neighborhood agencies, communicated with the school administration and wrote curriculum, as well as teaching in the expanded school day.

One of the most powerful memories from the fellowship involved my students who participated in the law apprenticeship and mock trial. They were English Language Learners and were very self-conscious when speaking publically in English. As much as they loved the experience, taking the bus downtown to the law offices, working with real lawyers and learning the points of a trial, they were all terrified of the WOW!, a  mock trial in front of a real judge and jury at the federal courthouse. A few students said they were going to be absent at school on that day, but I called their parents and they assured me they had permission and would be there. The day of the WOW! came and they did a fabulous job. A few months later when they reflected on their favorite memory from Citizen Schools, many of my students chose that day because they were so proud of doing something they never thought possible. That taught me so much about the role of a teacher to build a trusting and strong relationship with students so you are able to push them beyond what they are confident in doing and helping them believe they can succeed in new things.

I am currently teaching elementary special education in the Denver Public Schools in a multi intensive center program that serves students with various cognitive and adaptive needs.  In the fall I will be attending graduate school at DePaul University to pursue my Masters in Bilingual/Bicultural Education with an endorsement in ESL.

I think more than anything, I have stayed in the teaching profession because I value the relationships formed with students and families and believe that mutual responsibility and respect for learning is key to success.  I am lucky enough to work hard in the classroom and see my students working hard for the small, daily triumphs that are necessary for their long term success. The teaching profession is exciting, challenging and rewarding all at once. No two classrooms are the same, no two students are alike, and no day has ever been boring or predictable for me.

Apply for the Citizen Schools Teaching Fellowship in Chicago by June 8th!