My name is Spencer Reed, and I’m a proud City Year Philadelphia AmeriCorps alum currently serving as a proud summer intern with City Year Chicago. One central piece of City Year’s unique culture is a set of aphorisms and advice we call PITW’s, which stands for “Putting Idealism To Work.” We share one to open each meeting or presentation, and I’d like to share one with you.
PITW #159: “This is hard. Be strong.”
Now, to help you prepare for your Idealist’s Journey (you’ll learn all about that one soon), I’d like to share some advice as an individual who has worn the jacket.
1. Trust your team. They are there for you.
I served straight out of high school, so coming into City Year felt especially daunting for me. At first, I was very aware of the age difference between my teammates and me (shout out to the exception (and exceptional) Arden Locher!). But that distinction disappeared almost immediately once we got into our school. It takes pressure to create diamonds, and there was no shortage of pressure in that environment. We went from a group of strangers to a tight-knit team in no time. My teammates are some of the greatest, funniest, smartest, most supportive people I have ever had the privilege of knowing, and they remain some of my best friends.
2. Assume best intentions and exercise power courtesy.
This applies to all situations, but it’s especially helpful in building relationships beyond your team. City Year is part of the larger team in the education system, and so is everyone else in your school, from teachers to custodians, administrators to cafeteria workers. There will be friction and misunderstandings, so stay focused on intentionally applying your best intentions and courtesy to develop positive working relationships, whether it comes naturally (as it did with my excellent partner teacher, Jason Lerner) or only with difficulty. Remember that everyone you encounter is on the same team, working towards the same goal: supporting students.
3. The work won’t get easier, but you’ll get better at it—the difference lies in understanding why you do it.
I remember the exact moment this clicked for me. There was a student who would loudly inform me I was corny, or doin’ too much, or drawlin’ every time I tried to talk with her. On rare occasions it would seem I was making progress, but it seemed to be a constant process of taking one step forward, two steps back. Then on the last day before winter break, she came up to me as I stood in the hall shepherding students. She hesitated, and then she hugged me, tight, and told me she’d miss me. I couldn’t believe it. I’d like to say that after that our relationship was smooth sailing, but that’s not how it works. Even so, that moment made every second that came before it worthwhile ten times over.
4. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about being there for your students.
Ultimately, expecting to be perfect is a recipe for failure. You will make mistakes. Persevere. There is no shortage of things I wish I could have done differently (pro tip: don’t chase your students when they won’t come back into class, or they’ll start to see it as a game and run out for fun). Remember that your students are the reason you’re there at all, and the most important thing you can do is to provide consistency and empathy. No matter what they say, they care about you too.
5. This is hard. Be strong. It is worth every ounce of effort.
Nothing of value comes freely, and City Year was by far the most challenging, difficult, draining… valuable, transformative, beautiful experience of my life. This year will push you farther than you’ve been pushed ever before, but the payoff—the relationships you build, the teamwork you learn, the students who change your life—is worth it a thousand times over.
Finally, to everyone about to embark on your year of service: you’re here for a reason. It won’t be easy, but you can do it. Embrace City Year culture, love your team, support your students, and appreciate the little things—after you leave, you’ll miss even the stuff you thought you didn’t like.
And now, it’s time for you to put your idealism to work. Good luck, and have fun!
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