By Evie Kennedy, AmeriCorps member serving on the Cardozo Education Campus team
There are tons of emotions wrapped up in the first weeks of school, as we begin our service journeys, meet our students for the first time, and get to know the schools and communities we serve. As every current and former AmeriCorps Member can attest, these first five weeks have been full of nerves, uncertainty, and new challenges that our team has never experienced before. For instance, I came from a background of working with small children and preschoolers, where we sang and learned shapes and colors. Now, I serve in a high school math class in the International Academy at Cardozo Education Campus, where I spend my days translating obscure math terms and talking to students about their career plans.
Each day comes with its unique challenges for the Cardozo Team, but we can all agree that when there’s a breakthrough, or a moment of special connection, it gives us a spark of inspiration that carries us through even the most challenging situations. Here are some moments from the first weeks of school that moved us and made us smile:
1. Wear It With Pride
The first moment was my own and it occurred during the first week of school. As a few of my teammates know, it can be especially difficult being an LGBT+ AmeriCorps Member serving in a high school. I like to be open and authentic with my students, as I am sure that many of them are having their own struggles surrounding their identity, and I want them to know I’m a safe person to talk to about this. I recently came out to the group of girls with whom I sit during lunch and in that moment, I did not receive the response from some of them for which I had hoped. Later that day, however, one of the girls from that group approached me and said she liked the rainbow button on my backpack. I gave it to her and told her to wear it with pride (¡Llévalo con orgullo!). Now, she wears it on her backpack every day, and has a big smile on her face whenever she sees me.
2. The Mini Accountant
There are certain students that just can’t be missed as you go through the school day. These students are the ones who are always knocking on the window of our City Year room as they pass by and learned the names of every AmeriCorps Member within the first week. Many AmeriCorps Members on the Cardozo team have developed a special relationship with one certain 6th grader, who is incredibly fun, energetic, and motivated with his schoolwork, but struggles to keep his behavior under control—a common challenge for kids who have just come from an elementary school setting. Our whole team shares a hand in working with this student every day, setting goals for his behavior and working on developing a more mature, middle-school-appropriate demeanor. Last Friday was a dress-down day (a day that students do not have to wear their uniform) and this student showed up in a full suit with a briefcase. Anytime someone reached to give him a hug, he stuck out his hand and said, “I only shake hands, now.” He informed us that he would be doing all of our taxes this year. I think it is safe to say that this student’s middle-school-appropriate demeanor is coming along splendidly.
3. A Little Goes A Long Way
Mr. S, serves in a 10th grade geometry classroom, where he quickly realized that one of his students was really struggling with learning the content. Mr. S asked the student to come and work with him during lunch. After just twenty minutes working together the student made a breakthrough and realized he was able to grasp the material. Since then, the student has approached Mr. S for help with his other subjects too, and the two have developed a close relationship in just a short amount of time. A few weeks ago he was struggling in the back of the classroom. Now, Mr. S says that he participates so often in class that the teacher eventually has to cut him off to let other students answer!
4. All About Relationships
Ms. Fran serves in a 10th grade environmental science class in the International Academy, where she has discovered many of her students work jobs after school and on weekends, on top of coming to school every day. This sometimes makes it difficult for students to get to school on time and stay focused during the day, as many of them work long hours late into the night. One of her students has been having a particularly hard time making it to school on time and coming every day. Ms. Fran made a special effort to get to know this student over the first couple of weeks of school and form a good relationship with him. It seemed like a tremendous task to convince him to come to school and get his work done every day, but after a couple of weeks, her student committed to come to the City Year room every Tuesday after school for academic support. He told her that he wants to learn how to speak professionally in both Spanish and English to help him with his current job and future career. He said that he was only committing to this because he knew that she would be there to work with him.
City Year training emphasized to us the importance of forming relationships with our students, but we are now seeing their power in action.
5. An Unexpected Heart-to-Heart
Mr. Leo serves in a 6th grade cohort at Cardozo, which means he follows the same kids through their daily schedule as they move through their classes and electives. As a result, he’s been able to form close relationships with many of his students, setting a basis of trust and safety for the youngest students in the building as they go through their first weeks of middle school. At lunch the other day, Leo sat next to a student who was playing with a fidget spinner. He took out his own fidget spinner to play with him. The student asked if Mr. Leo would trade spinners with him, as Mr. Leo’s spinner was his father’s favorite color. After the trade, as they sat together, the student began to confide in Mr. Leo about his father’s passing. Leo said that this was “one of the most moving moments of his life.”
It’s incredible what can happen when we’ve set a foundation of trust with our students.