by Britt Walsh, AmeriCorps member serving on the Westfield Capital Management team with Mildred Avenue K-8 School
1. Expect the unexpected. This is a rule of thumb that has several meanings to it, but I am speaking specifically to working with my 6th-graders. At City Year, we talk a lot about being like water—you need to learn how to go with the flow. Of course, this is much easier said than done. The only way to learn how to be like water is through lived experience. Before starting my service, I dreaded the day my partner teacher would be out: “sub days.” I’ve had multiple experiences with sub days at this point in the year, and these experiences have really given me the opportunity to step up as a leader. I’ve been able to come up with lesson plans for my 6th-graders, and get a feel of what leading a whole class is like. This has not only confirmed my passion for teaching; it’s also made me realize that the best experiences are the ones that you would least expect.
2. The classroom is a stage. SHOWTIME. Let’s be real: It’s hard to be energetic ALL the time, but when it comes to the classroom setting, energy is vital for student engagement. My students are tired, especially in the dark days of January and February, which is why I need to give them my all when I step into the classroom. I always make sure to bring this energy into the classroom as a whole, but my small group pull-out tutoring session is my big “solo number,” so to speak. Imagine: you’re a 6th-grader, it’s the last period of the day, maybe it’s cold and rainy outside—more learning is probably the last thing on your mind. I make sure to keep my students engaged by having our own sort of book club, with a text I’ve chosen apart from their assigned reading in class—and they love it! I chose a dystopian fiction written by Michael Grant called Gone. This genre of fiction is quite advanced because it requires more abstract thinking—but my students love a challenge. We take turns reading aloud, and I make sure to come up with discussion questions beforehand. I especially like to use these questions if I can tell a student is getting off task. I can ask a question that the student can relate to, or may find humorous, and then the flow of reading and discussing continues. And I have to say, even if I myself am feeling tired at the beginning of our reading group, I feel refreshed and energized by my students’ enthusiasm by the end!
3. Appreciate the time you have with your students. I don’t think time has ever passed by so quickly for me. It’s February, and I can’t help but think at this point about the growth I've seen in my students’ work ethic and the rapport I’ve built with them. The main aspect of my service that gets me up at 5 a.m. when it’s still dark out is my students. As I have reached the midyear portion of my service, I already have bittersweet emotions about my year of service approaching its end. I’ve gotten to know my students so well, and care for them so much—and they never cease to put a smile on my face. I think of how fast the first portion of my service has gone by, and how much faster the second will pass. I want to enjoy every single second; I want to embrace the feeling of being able to work with such bright scholars, such wonderful young people. I’ve never had an experience more fulfilling in my life. I owe that entirely to my kids.
4. Build your network of support. While time has been going by fast, I’ve learned that it’s very easy to ignore the emotional toll being in a new city, away from home, and working long hours can take. It’s important to build a network of support that you can rely on, whether it be friends from home, a City Year team leader or impact manager, roommates, family, your cat (everyone should have a cat), your partner teacher—anyone you can confide in. My personal network of support is my family. My twin sister lives in New York, but our hometown is in Connecticut—a perfect midway point between New York and Boston. Living in Boston is such a great experience in itself, but I will always think of Connecticut as “home.” I make sure to keep in touch with my family whether it be visiting home, or just having a conversation on the phone. Service is an incredible experience and it is also challenging, but no one has to do this alone.
5. Practice self-care. Finally, I’ve learned that self-care is incredibly important to service. I remember talking about self-care all the way back in August during Basic Training Academy (BTA), and thinking of it more on a surface level. It took me a while to realize that you need to schedule time for self-care into your day in order to make it happen. This isn’t easy. Personally, I have realized that my form of self-care needs to be something in between service and sleep; something that keeps me refreshed. Although it takes a lot of motivation, I fill this time by going to the gym. Running and strength training have not only made me feel better about my health and body; it’s also good for my mind and soul. Remember that energy I was talking about before? Exercise has absolutely helped me channel that when it’s “Showtime!” Lastly, make sure you get plenty of sleep. If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your students. I know that sounds obvious, but it took me a good while to learn. We’re all human—if you’re not learning, you’re not living!