Igniting a Fire Through Teaching

Courtney Jones is the Director of Public Affairs at Nielsen and a Citizen Teacher at Citizen Schools New York. She is also a member of the Citizen Schools New York Board of Advocates. I have always been passionate about education reform in America. I had to ask myself, “What are you doing, to help?”  So, there it was – a challenge I issued to myself to get off the sidelines and be part of the change…

I was introduced to the Citizen Schools movement by a colleague and had to get involved. Citizen Schools represents the amazing work that happens when public and private partnerships work - giving students extra learning time and exposing them to future career possibilities through learning in a ten week apprenticeship.

After much trepidation (I wasn’t the easiest middle school student, karma can be cruel) I decided to sign up to teach an apprenticeship and I recruited some colleagues to teach with me. My fellow Citizen Teachers and I taught a group of students at The Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters in Brooklyn. I work for Nielson, a consumer measurement and insights company, and I wasn’t sure we had much to talk about that middle school students would find interesting. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

For ten weeks we showed the kids why consumer research is important and how the consumption choices people make affect marketing and advertising. The students were tasked with creating their own surveys, collecting data from friends and family, analyzing the data and presenting their findings at the end of the apprenticeship.

I remember one student in particular, Carl, who was really disinterested at first. He’s the type of kid who would always pass the buck to other members of the group and never actually participated. I didn’t think he was listening to a word I said. At the end of the semester when the kids presented their project to a group of executives, all of a sudden he was answering all the questions and he really took the opportunity to shine. He had been listening all along! I was so impressed by his level of engagement.

Over the course of the apprenticeship, I saw what adding extra learning time in the day does for students like Carl. The transformation I saw in students from week one to week ten was nothing short of awesome. Students who barely said five words in the first couple of weeks were presenting to senior executives at the end of the semester.

As I saw my students grow over the ten weeks, I also went through a similar transformation. As adults, we read and hear about the educational disadvantages facing low-income communities. With Citizen Schools I got to see the importance of what an apprenticeship brings to the kids' lives.  I was able to helps kids connect school to real jobs and real work scenarios. By exposing the kids to something new, I was exposed to the importance of this work. It truly changed me.

These kids are really bright students and had they be given the same opportunities as their more affluent peers their lives would be different. It ignited my fire even more.  I want to do more to make sure that all of these kids get the opportunity to be exposed to new dreams.

My passion for the Citizen Schools movement has taken me beyond the classroom. In December I joined the Citizen Schools New York Board of Advocates to help evangelize the fantastic work of this organization, recruit more people to get involved and teach apprenticeships, and encourage students to dream big, continue their education, and reach their fullest potential.

You might not think that your job is all that interesting, but for a kid how has never learned anything about architecture or accounting or research it could make all the difference. As I was looking for an answer to the question, “What are you doing?” I found Citizen Schools. Or maybe Citizen Schools found me. Either way, I know I’m part of the change. You can be too. Sign up today.