Citizen Teachers: Nothing Less Than Life-Changing

Jennifer Hart is a Second Year Teaching Fellow at Isaac Newton Middle School in East Harlem, NY

Before our mid-semester training for our volunteer Citizen Teachers this year, I wanted to take a step back and take some time to do what teachers rarely have the time to do in the midst of the challenges of the job – reflect. As Citizen Teachers only have the opportunity to see their students for the 1.5 hours each week that they spend with them on campus teaching apprenticeship courses, they may not always get to see or hear the full impact of their work. I want to make sure that they knew that their work is, as is the work of so many educators, nothing less than life-changing.

Recently we had the honor of hosting our wonderful families for Family Night at Isaac Newton Middle School in East Harlem, NY. We shared with parents the mission of our program – the importance of building academic skills and helping our students make those critical college and career connections to put them all on the path to success. Our students spoke about different elements of Citizen Schools, and parents naturally had questions about their child’s progress, the schedule, etc, but what stood out to me were the questions that came from parents like “What is this apprenticeship program? My child won’t stop talking about his apprenticeships!” I had two students who had rehearsed a brief speech to answer the question, “What is an apprenticeship?”, but I later asked the class, impromptu, in front of their parents, if anyone would like to share something about their apprenticeship. Nearly 14 hands shot straight in the air. The students I called on each spoke articulately with a light in their eyes that you do not always see in an average classroom. Judging by the proud smiles of so many parents, I could tell they were impressed. One of my coworkers shared a wonderful story with me – one of her student's parents had actually asked if she could attend a WOW! (the final presentation at the end of apprenticeships) of an apprenticeship, even though her child was not in that course. The passion our Citizen Teachers are bringing to the classroom is inspiring a love of learning and excitement not only in our students, but also in parents and in the larger community.   

Further emphasizing the impact of Citizen Teachers, each week, we gather our students in a ritual called “Circle,” where our students come together to celebrate one another’s achievements and the learning that has occurred throughout the week. We do what is called a “teach back” where students come to the center of the circle and share something they have learned with their class. This week several students came forward, and each student wanted to share something that they had learned in their apprenticeships – again with a joy and an excitement that is too often absent from our country’s struggling classrooms. One of my students came forward and shared that she had been disappointed when she was first placed in her apprenticeship, as it had not been her first choice. But now, she said, with an eloquence, honesty, and insightfulness that took us all by surprise, that she felt like she had grown so much in her apprenticeship. She used to always get into trouble, but now she said, “I love it…and I love my Citizen Teacher!”

I could, as always, write and write about the magnitude of the impact of Citizen Teachers. They all are most certainly part of something bigger than they could possibly imagine. And to all the people who make the volunteer opportunity possible for our Citizen Teachers – the Teaching Fellows who dedicate hours of their time to making an expert’s knowledge come alive for our students, the Civic Engagement departments who recruit new talent and forge new partnerships with exciting people and businesses, the families and teachers who support the program (and teach apprenticeships themselves!), and so many more people – you are all part of this impact.

Thank you for all you are doing – Citizen Teachers and the people who make the opportunities possible. Your work is nothing less than life-changing.

Who was a life-changing educator in your life?