by Christopher Hui, AmeriCorps member on the Summit Partners team with Winthrop Elementary School, as told to guests at City Year Boston's Legal Community Breakfast on Friday, March 3, 2017
Over the last few months I have been fortunate to develop amazing relationships with my students as a tutor, mentor, and role model, and I am one of 265 corps members doing the same in 21 Boston Public Schools every day.
My journey to City Year started not too far from here, just a few miles south of Boston in Quincy. My parents immigrated to the United States as teenagers, and they raised my siblings and me to believe in the American Dream - that with hard work and discipline, you can achieve success. We were taught to always do our best. And while that often brought out the competitive side in us, it pushed us to believe that anything was possible.
As a child entering first grade, English was not my primary language and I struggled in school. I didn’t get the extra push I needed and actually failed first grade. Maybe it was the competitive nature in me, but in spite of this setback, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. Many people discouraged me and told me I'd be better off pursuing a different career. When I entered college, that experience stuck with me, and motivated me to give school my all. Fast forward four years, and I graduated valedictorian of Suffolk University with a degree in Legal Studies.
After graduation, I knew I wanted to take a year off and study for the LSATs, but I also wanted to do meaningful work. That's when I found City Year. Because of my own struggles in school, I saw City Year as a great opportunity to give back to students like myself, who needed extra help and individualized support. I arrived at City Year this past August along with more than 200 fellow corps members. After six weeks of intensive training, I entered the halls of the Winthrop school.
Currently, I serve in 4th grade with two partner teachers, Ms. Rogan and Ms. Varmette. My partner teachers and I have built great relationships where I am able to directly support my students in 3 key areas – what we call the ABCs –attendance; behavior; and coursework. Students rely on corps members to support them before the first bell rings until the last one goes home. That means that we're on the steps of the school each morning to greet students with a song or chant to get them excited for the day, but also to check if homework is done, or they're in a good mood. If they aren't there, we call home to make sure they have assignments prepared for the next day, or to set goals with the whole family for attendance.
I've been able to build incredible relationships with parents this way. I get to update them with positive news on their daughter's growth in math, or let them know where their son might need to pay more attention to his homework. My students know I talk with their parents, and I secretly get a kick out of it when they ask me, "What do you say about us?" I never tell them; instead I ask, "Well, how have you been this week?" Having parents on board makes a world of difference in the classroom; not only do parents feel included in their children's progress, but my students receive the structure and support from home and school that they need to succeed.
My partner teachers and I have a goal for all our 4th grade students to be prepared with the skills for 5th grade. This is a big goal and I'm not going to lie, I expect a lot out of my students. Most of my students are right on the line to meet proficiency but often need help understanding concepts. My job in the classroom is to push them, or to remind them, "Hey you've got to double check that." I often ask my students to revise their work because I want to see nothing but their best.
In class, when my partner teachers are at the front board, I'm circulating between desks and redirecting students who are off task. Afterwards, I might work with small groups of students to reinforce the lesson. We work on things like improving sentence structure, and teaching them how to write a clear sentence. I can't describe the feeling of seeing my students' quiz grades go up, and knowing that all my hours of hard work are helping them.
My team and I try to make learning fun for our students both inside and outside the classroom. After school, we host clubs and provide enrichment activities where students can learn new skills outside of the classroom. Recently we hosted my favorite club: debate! We taught the students about ad hominem and how to present an effective argument. Our best debate was Dogs vs. Cats, where the students studied their opponents' arguments to use against them. The winning argument said that because cats are related to lions, and lions are kings of the jungle, cats are kings! It's really amazing to watch my students learning how to think and express themselves, and enjoying something that I love to do.
As a corps member, I spend all day with my students, but the most important aspect of my service is the time I spend building relationships with them. Every day, I eat lunch with them and use that time to get to know them better. We talk about their favorite video games, or what they're doing at home. Honestly, in the beginning, they weren't too excited to spend time with me instead of their friends, but now they remind me, "Hey Mr. Hui, we're eating lunch together today."
Having the opportunity to talk outside of the classroom, allows me to say, "I noticed you're working really hard in class, but the way you spoke to Ms. Rogan this morning wasn't really appropriate." In those moments, I'm able to break down the barriers and get to know them as people, which plays a large role in helping them set goals or manage behaviors.
While I love all of my students, the one that stands out for me the most is Alice. If you saw Alice in gym glass or at recess, she was always talking and surrounded by friends. But when it came to class, she didn't participate. When the year started, Alice's confidence in her school work was very low. Alice struggled most with reading and comprehension skills, so together we worked on improving those areas by reading aloud. I would start a sentence and ask her to finish it, and we built up in difficulty until she felt more comfortable with harder passages.
Whenever we worked together, Alice told me, "I can't do this," or "I will never do that." Kids are aware of who the "smart kids" are and she felt like she would never catch up to them in class. I consider myself a very confident person, who also managed to overcome a challenging beginning, so I told Alice my story, saying, “Hey, you’re not the only one who struggled as a kid. Mr. Hui struggled too.” I told her how I didn’t do well in 1st grade, how I got to where I am now, and that everyone learns differently. She was really receptive and I saw her eyes light up. She said, “Wow, really? I’ve never failed 1st grade. I mean, if you failed first grade, and made it here, I can make it too!”
Since then I've seen her confidence increase. She participates more in class, raising her hand when she'd normally keep quiet. Now when we have homework, she attempts it instead of immediately calling me over for help. Her favorite activity is a fluency game where she races to identify words and beat her time. It's gratifying to watch her grow more independent and confident in her school work and I know she will use those skills in 4th grade through high school.
One of my proudest moments in my service year thus far was watching Alice stick up for another struggling student. When another classmate taunted him and called him dumb, she told his bully, "He's not dumb, it’s just that he learns in a different way. We’re all smart in our own ways.” I knew then that my message had stuck with her.
As a corps member, I see my role not as just coaching my students academically, but helping them feel more self-assured and independent in their own education. After I complete my year of service, I'm confident knowing that because I gave them that little extra push, my students are one step closer to achieving their goals. And that is an amazing feeling, one that I wish I had as a kid.
I wouldn't be able to do all of this without my team. Working on a team has been a really positive experience for me. In our group of seven, I'm known as the hard worker. I'm always the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. I even have my own set of keys. I like coming in early to work on my tasks and I've noticed that now my teammates join me to get started planning our days. As an assertive person, I'm always ready to volunteer my time and lend a hand. But my teammates remind me that I can't do it all alone and that everyone's input matters. They've taught me how to ask others for help. I rely on them for support and listen to their advice. Through this experience, I've learned how to step back and let other voices be heard.
After City Year, I plan on taking a year off to study for LSATS and apply to Law School. Per usual, I've set some high expectations for where I will attend, and I'm determined to work hard to get in. I thought City Year would be a gap year, but man was I wrong. I have been BUSY! But I've learned so much that I know I'll take with me once I move on. I've learned a lot about communicating with others, working with a diverse team, and most importantly, about character. And in a business where ethics and character are essential, I know I will carry these experiences with me long after I hang up my red jacket.