Before attending this Princeternship, I did some research into education reform, watching documentaries like “Waiting for Superman” and “The Lottery” as well as reading the articles provided to me by my alumni host Sylvia Monreal ‘10. I didn’t consider myself an expert on education reform by any means, but I thought that I had a pretty good idea of the issues surrounding education in this country and the possible solutions to those issues. I imagined that if only the education system fostered dedicated, passionate teachers who were fully aware of their enormous responsibility to impart knowledge onto their students, all children would display the drive to learn and consequently, would perform better in school. However, after observing the Citizen Schools program at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Newark, New Jersey, I realized how simplified my model for education reform was. Educating students at a school like this one where only 16% of seventh graders displayed proficiency in reading and language and only 20% of seventh graders displayed proficiency in math is not simply a matter of introducing “good” teachers into the classroom. Each and every Citizen Schools teacher I observed was exceptional in their selfless and seemingly infinite drive to help their students to not only learn basic skills like fractions but also to make thoughtful connections between the classroom and the “real world.” Yet, to truly change a student’s life and put them on the path toward a college education and a meaningful career does not just require good teachers, I soon realized. To accomplish this gargantuan task means changing the students’ mindsets, combating other potential factors like broken home lives and the negative values imparted onto them by their peers, families, and the surrounding culture of the area – a feat that would seem impossible to many.
However, to the teachers I observed at Citizen Schools, this feat was just another day at the office. Watching them meticulously construct lesson plans and seamlessly conduct class in a chaotic environment gave me a newfound respect for the profession. Specifically, I remember walking into the class Sylvia was subbing on my first day at the Princeternship. Although these were not her normal students nor was this her normal responsibility at the workplace, Sylvia took on the task masterfully, leading a quiet group of about five or six girls in their homework in the midst of the turmoil that is the combination of a hot afternoon and tired children. The gentle way she interacted with the students was extraordinary and was mirrored in numerous other classes I observed. For instance, seeing Mr. Taylor help the kids with their homework on the second day of my Princeternship was like watching a conductor direct a world-class symphony. Keeping the class under control, he deftly went from desk to desk, using carefully constructed questions to encourage his students to arrive at the answer independently, fostering personal growth and self-reliance. Observing Ms. Lopez conduct a discussion on whether the wealthy have a responsibility to help the poor or seeing Mr. W begin a conversation with his students on the link between education and poverty produced similar feelings of amazement in me. And these are just a few isolated examples – every day at Citizen Schools was a new opportunity for me to look at the inspiring work of these teachers, giving me hope for the future of education in this country.
This Princeternship truly changed my perspective in a way that no other experience in my life has. It taught me to look for the positive in all situations, to devote yourself fully to what you love, and to persist even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. It opened my eyes to a completely different world, forcing me out of the Orange Bubble mentality and broadening my outlook as a whole. Finally, it solidified my desire to do a program like the Citizen Schools teaching fellowship after I graduate so that I too can work toward the betterment of the American education system. I really cannot thank my Princetern host Sylvia and all of the teachers and staff I encountered throughout these three days enough for allowing me to experience this extraordinary opportunity.