Jessica Eddy is a first year Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools New York. She delivered this speech at a Citizen Schools New York event. When I was first asked to be tonight's Teaching Fellow speaker, I grappled with one question: How do I be completely honest about my fellowship experience, but leave my listeners with a renewed sense of hope in the work that we do? Most of you can probably relate to this dilemma, as I’m pretty sure you’d agree that our jobs are far from easy, the hours are long, and the roles we play in closing the achievement gap are anything but glamorous. However, after a bit of reflection, I decided that the best way to do this would be to tell you a little bit about where I was at the beginning of the fellowship and where I am today.
My decision to become a Teaching Fellow in New York involved much more than a desire to give back to my community. It also reflected an eagerness to become active in what many have come to refer to as the most pressing civil rights issue of our time. I not only wanted to help students who looked like me get the education I was so fortunate to receive, but I also wanted to be a part of making sure they had access to professional opportunities that would ground their learning and bring more meaning to their school day. I saw an outlet for me to accomplish these things within the Citizen Schools model, and so I decided to sign up.
But, during the very first day of program, on that fateful Thursday, September 6, all of my thoughts about civil rights in education, and justice, and access to professional opportunity, and school day significance were replaced by two very simple words that I’m confident we've all gotten used to hearing: behavior management.
Oh, yes. I will never forget the whirlwind expressions on my co-workers faces during our first post-program meeting when our Campus Director casually asked how everything went. As for me, I was sweating, my body felt like it had been run over by an 18 wheeler, and I was completely stunned by the attitudes these 11 and 12-year-olds carried, most of them half my size.
As the weeks progressed, I would quickly learn that it didn’t stop just at attitudes. I would later explain to my grandmother, “they throw fits, they throw chairs, and they throw each other.” Behavior management? My boss told me I was doing an excellent job but it honestly felt like I was not managing a thing. I felt it, and so did the kids.
Needless to say, the pressure was on, and it began to build. Students’ attitudes and behaviors became worse, our relationship with the school day teachers started to fall apart at the seams, the amount of deadlines outside of the classroom increased, a work life balance did not exist, our campus director resigned, and, to my utter dismay, I began to develop wrinkle lines on my forehead. I was disillusioned and in survival mode, just trying to make it from one day to the next, just trying to prep my lessons and materials, and to stick to my campus schedule the best I could.
And in all honesty, I began to view student achievement as an added bonus to my work, not as my daily goal. “I will help those students who show me they want to be helped. I will teach those who want to learn, and I will help bring opportunity to those open to accepting it.” These were my thoughts, and I didn't care if they meant I was a bad teacher. They helped me navigate what was beginning to feel like a hopeless situation.
It turns out that my discontent was becoming known to everyone, even my supervisors. When I first met my interim supervisor Chad Vignola, he smiled and said “Jessica Eddy, so you’re the one I was told to stop at the end of each day and ask to please stay on board.” I was amused by this remark, and it became an inside joke between Chad and me.
But to date, nothing hit me harder than when one of my students, the extremely mischievous yet completely adorable Joan Cruz, peered up at me with his squinting little eyes and asked, “Ms. Eddy, are you going to leave us? Are you going to quit?” I was floored and had no idea how to respond. “I won’t leave you, Joan,” was all I could muster up.
It was in that moment, for the very first time, that I recognized the value of my work. If nothing else, I came to know that I represent a steady force in students’ lives, someone they look forward to seeing everyday just as much as they look forward to driving crazy, and someone they know will stick it out with them and for them when times are hard.
That one little question showed me just how closely my students were watching me, how accustomed they were getting to having me around (no matter how much they yelled that holding kids hostage until 6 o clock was illegal), and how much they wanted me to help them succeed. I renewed my investment that evening, and planned to make relationship building with my students a more regular part of my plan for their academic and personal success.
I won’t lie to you and say it’s been all rainbows and roses from then on. The work is still incredibly difficult, and finding ways to engage students in all aspects of program presents itself as a daily challenge. But I've seen my students make amazing personal and academic strides just by knowing someone is in their corner, rooting for them, and has no intention of walking away.
As for Joan, his attitude has improved, he can identify math patterns more quickly than he could during first semester, and he is more focused on developing his career as a professional wrestler than I’ve ever seen him. Last week, when I made the announcement that it was time to pack up and put up the chairs, he yelled out, “No! I don’t want to leave Citizen Schools right now!” “Joan, I’m going to have to record you saying that,” I said, beaming. But what I probably meant to say was, “I don’t want to leave just yet, either.”
This work is hard. But the impact is real. Join Jessica Eddy and incredible class of Teaching Fellows, and change lives. Apply to the National Teaching Fellowship today.