Service is Leadership
When I was an undergraduate at Wheaton College in Illinois, I was under the assumption that there was a “type” of person who went into a service field after graduation—and I was pretty sure it wasn’t me. I was obviously going to do something more important. But when college graduation rolled around, I realized that there weren’t too many open positions for inexperienced twenty-one-year-olds in the White House or the New York Times. Apprehensively, I made the decision to join the Citizen Schools National Teaching Fellowship in Boston, Massachusetts.
My first year of teaching was tough. There were good moments, of course, but I can’t help but shudder when I recall my scripted lesson plans and my awkward behavior management. For quite some time, I operated under the mentality that I was “giving service a try” but it “wasn’t really my thing.”
In my second year at Citizen Schools, two eleven-year-old Moroccan boys in my classroom changed everything. Believing Sif and Abdellah deserved much better than the failing school they were attending, I worked with the boys’ mothers to transition the students to a local charter with some of the highest test scores in the region. It was through this action that I experienced my personal epiphany: “service” wasn’t about fitting myself into a prescribed, do-gooder mold; it was about harnessing my personal passion to drive transformation in others. I cared deeply about ensuring that my students were connected to existing services in the community, and I was proud to have the insight and opportunity to lead them there.
Once I reconsidered my preconceptions about service, I realized how driven I was to continue to motivate change in low-income communities. I made the decision to actually extend my AmeriCorps service by joining the 2012 Teach For America corps in Chicago. I now teach 7th and 8th grade Humanities at Perspectives IIT/Math & Science Academy on the south side of the city.
As a first year corps member, I have elected to participate in a Leadership Pilot, group of 15 corps members who have agreed to spend extra Saturdays and summertime in professional development to hone in on the meaning of personal leadership. The program is grounded in the belief that leadership is most effective when grounded in a leader’s values and priorities. Essentially, it asserts that I am the best leader when I am most myself, utilizing my pre-existing skills and passions to effect change around me. By identifying my values, strengths, background and priorities, I can maximize my leadership and therefore my success as an educator.
What does this highly-personalized intersection of leadership and values look like in a Teach For America classroom? It looks like this:
- I value tradition, a principle embedded in me from growing up in a hometown inhabited by my family for 100 years. In turn, I drive my students towards a deep consciousness of their own heritage. This week, “tradition” meant spending 3 days of lessons on Biblical allusion in literature because most of the students in my 98% African-American school practice a religion, but had not yet considered how that extracurricular knowledge might apply to their academics.
I value community, a belief originating from my background in the theatre-as-social-justice movement. I operate from an understanding that my students’ stories are tied up in mine, and that it is critical to our liberation that we listen actively to the voices of our community. Come into my classroom, hear the Spoken Word sharing after creative writing prompts, pen your thoughts on one of your on-going chalkboard murals, see the neon poster I taped to the wall: “We read to know that we are not alone.”
- I value achievement, a conviction fashioned from a lifetime of academic perseverance. I blast my students with exposure to collegiate opportunity, including field trips to my alma mater an hour outside the city. I post the average GPAs of incoming college freshman at various universities around the room and ask my students to calculate their own GPAs. Then they reflect, “Would I get into Duke today? University of Chicago? Howard? Oberlin? What changes do I need to make in my academics and behavior in order to achieve the future that I want?”
Teach For America and I have the same goal: to make great leaders. We both operate under the belief that leaders transform classrooms, which then transform schools, communities, and cities. We also agree on how great leaders are made: take what is inherently good about someone and channel those pre-existing values into work that will fuel the lives of others, both in the classroom and throughout careers.
The last deadline for the 2013 Teach For America corps is Friday, February 15th. I strongly encourage you to visit www.teachforamerica.org and consider if the corps might be the next step for you to continue your own service.
You are already a leader. Come be a teacher. Join the 2013 Teach For America corps.