Dear Future Chicago Teachers,
Congratulations on your acceptance to Teach For America’s Chicago corps! Now that the application and waiting process is over, you are about to make a life-changing decision. Being a teacher is simultaneously exhausting and awe-inspiring, and teaching in Chicago—the country’s third largest school district and once deemed “the worst in the nation”—is rife with its own particular struggles and successes. But I am writing to tell you: the decision to join our movement is absolutely worth it. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.
As a first-year corps member, I went through the excitement and apprehension about joining Teach For America only a few months ago, and so the magnitude of this decision is still quite fresh. In fact, I think about it every morning as I greet my sixth-grade class at the Chicago International Charter School on the city’s South Side. I’ll be honest: There are days when this job feels impossible, when the inequities of Chicago’s public education system seem insurmountable. Of my 24 sixth graders, only three are reading on grade level; most are reading on a third-grade level, and one can hardly read at all. Many of my students still struggle to add two-digit numbers, and most can’t even use a ruler. Added to this is the fact that school seems so disjointed from the realities of my students’ lives. Sure, I can teach them about plot structure and topic sentences, but I wonder: What about the fact that Daje is getting jumped every day on her way home from school? What about Brandon, who missed school for two weeks because no one was home to make him get up in the morning? What about Jerome, who has made it to sixth grade without learning how to read? What about Rueben and Rachel, who are brimming over with so much eleven-year-old energy that they can’t sit still for three minutes.
But these very disparities are what make this work worth it. My students need me, to teach them to read, to get organized, to add dollar amounts. They need me to push and encourage and stick with them. And, happily, I’ve come to need them: their humor, their questions, their honesty, their hugs, and their observations.
Even in their craziest moments, my gaggle of demanding and brilliant eleven-year-olds inspires me to work my hardest and become the best teacher I can. Sure, there are failed lessons and frustrating moments, but there are also innumerable successes and breakthroughs. Some days, it’s the whole class loudly and proudly reciting our class pledge: ”I’m smart, I’m brilliant, and I’m ready to learn!” Other days, it’s Rueben and Rachel harnessing their energy to win our root word relay game. Or it’s Brandon, begging to spend recess with me so he can do his homework, and Jerome—my non-reader—spending hours with me after school learning how to decode and sound out words. It’s Mariah and Maurice cheering when they improve on a math test, and Marcus getting asked to read his essay to our alderman. It’s Brittany passing her first reading quiz, and Dantrel illustrating the elements of a story. It’s the notes, hand-colored and decorated, thanking me for teaching my students math, for helping them improve their test grades, for making them feel good about themselves. Darian’s note was especially poignant: “Thank you Ms. Gibson for helping everyone in the class with their math, and for making everyone learn how to only get ‘A’s in your class. I hope someone makes you feel this way, too, because we are all doing better in your class because we love math and we love you.”
Teaching in Chicago will take dedication, creativity, and humor. On some days, it will try you, but you will be supported by an extended community of dedicated parents, teachers, principals, community leaders, and—most importantly—170 other Chicago corps members, all facing and overcoming the same challenges. Together, this community is working to ensure that every child realizes his or her own potential. Together, we are working to ensure that Juwan does in fact go to Princeton, Carolyn becomes a lawyer like she dreams, and Marcus will visit South Africa. What we do today, in Room 200W at Chicago International Charter School and in classrooms across the city, is ensuring that every one of our students has the opportunity and skill to realize his or her dreams.
There is a class of eager, brilliant, and loving students waiting for you in Chicago. I hope you choose to join them. They will change your life, and you will change theirs.
I look forward to meeting you in Chicago!
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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