When Dejah Watson joined City Year Philadelphia as a mid-year AmeriCorps member in January of 2018, her intention was a combination of service to Philadelphia’s students and a desire to explore her professional interests. Just one month prior, the South Philadelphia native earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice with a minor in Psychology from Lock Haven University. Her plan was to see if the City Year experience -- particularly its focus on socio-emotional learning for students -- was something that she could use to apply the skills she'd obtained in school.
Today, Dejah is two months into her first year as a sixth-grade math teacher at Wagner Middle School in Philly’s West Oak Lane section. Dejah credits this unexpected, yet rewarding, twist in her professional career to City Year’s annual 18-Minute Networking event. 18-Minute Networking gathers corps members for a day of learning, networking, and exploring future opportunities with CY alumni and other professionals from all different backgrounds and professions. For Dejah, it was this Leadership After City Year (LACY) initiative that sparked her interest in full-time teaching.
What initially brought you to City Year?
I did City Year because I was thinking, “I have a degree in Psychology. I’ll apply it to City Year and see what I may want to do for a career.”
Where did you serve?
I served fifth graders at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary.
What was your service year like?
I loved my work with the kids. I was proud of the fact that I joined CYP as a mid-year ACM, yet it didn’t take me more than three weeks to build relationships with the children. I could tell I was an asset to the team. Overall, I enjoyed our team, though at times there seemed to be power struggles and other team dynamics challenges for us to work through.
Did you always know that teaching was something you wanted to do?
Absolutely not. It became the plan when I knew I needed to be the change I wanted to see inside the schools we were serving in.
When and how, then, did teaching become more of a targeted goal for you?
When I went to CYP’s 18-Minute Networking. I met some people who said to me, “I can see you doing something bigger than this three years from now.” I thought to myself, “Hmmmm. Three years seems like a long time. I’m going to do it now.”
Professionals at the education table I visited gave me a list of websites to visit and gave me advice on the best places to start looking and what to look for. Afterward, I went to the principal at Bethune where I served and asked if she could see it in my future. She also advised me on the best places to go. From there, with Principal Bradley’s help and mentorship, I narrowed down the places where I wanted to interview. I was originally supposed to go to Ben Franklin Elementary School, but ended up at Wagner Middle School with sixth graders. I feel it worked out in my favor. Working with sixth graders, it was sort of a new start for all of us as opposed to going into an elementary school where they’re already settled in and established.
What do you teach?
At Wagner, I teach sixth grade math. I have a home room, three periods of math, and intervention. I have about 25 students per class.
What did you carry with you from City Year into the classroom where you teach now?
‘Checks for Understanding’ is something I do at least three times in each class I teach. This is where the students tell me how comfortable they are with the material we’re working on by using what’s called a Fist of 5. Five fingers signify, “I’m good, keep going.” One finger essentially says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I do it often just to see if I should keep going or stop. I also do mental health check-ins with my students at the start of each class. If they’re already having a bad day, there’s no need for me to add to it.
What recommendations do you have for current and future corps members?
As it relates to 18-Minute Networking, I remember initially not wanting to go. While I was there, I went to the business table, the education table, and the grad school table. The conversations became bigger and as I listened to their questions and ideas, it made me think. It made me feel like these people were seeing more potential in me than others around me I worked with and more potential than I even saw in myself at the time. So, I would say corps members who attend 18-Minute Networking need to go there with an open mind. You can’t be close-minded.
What recommendations as it relates to serving with City Year in general?
For mid-year corps members, people may automatically tell you the struggles you’ll have from coming in at the middle of the school year, but don’t let them decide for you. Everyone is different and most of us didn’t have any problems. So, my advice to midyear ACMs is simple: don’t listen to them! Go into it knowing yourself. Learn the school, the rules, and the best practices, but find your own way. You don’t have to do everything the exact same way as everyone else. Do what you’re required to do, but still be you at the same time.
Now that you’re an educator, what does the future hold for you?
Ultimately, I want to be a Principal or a Dean. I want to be a decision-maker, so I must take the necessary steps to get me where I want to be.