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Giva Scholarship & Community Ambassador Award Winner Essay Series: Joseph Lee - My Life as a Teacher

Giva is proud to showcase the essays of its Student Scholarship and Worldwide Community Ambassador Award winners. Below is an essay from Joseph Lee, Rush Medical College. Giva's hope is to inspire others through these essays. We hope that sharing these essays will help others realize the joys and benefits of service.

My Life as a Teacher
by Joseph Lee

My second year of teaching has contrasted starkly with my first. The same parking lot, the same classroom (Room 312), and even the same kids greeted me on the first day. With that said, very few things came as a surprise. And while most teachers are presented with a new group of faces each fall, I was able to cycle with my 7th graders. Currently, serving as the primary 8th grade teacher, I am comforted in knowing that if I was to cease teaching at year's end, I would be able to leave with my students. And with such familiarity, I am confronted with new adventures and challenges each day, ones that at day's end are reminders of the lives that are changing. And this difference is in large part to all those who support my efforts and the larger efforts of Teach for America. You can rest assured that hundreds of thousands of student's lives are being positively impacted because of their compassion. And as the rhetoric of failing schools continues to dominate political arenas; it's hard to imagine a nation where all students are guaranteed a quality education. Nevertheless, we teach each day believing that the dream will become a reality.

Amidst all the optimism, however, numerous stains of frustration have diluted the entire experience. As a result of our school transitioning to a year round (Track E) school, summer vacation was shortened to five weeks. And as I recuperated in my parent's homeland of South Korea, much tension was brewing at Parkside Community Academy. The tensions were capped by the dismissal of our assistance principal, Mrs. J (a mother figure and mentor), who was let go due to undisclosed circumstances. This information crushed my spirits, pushing me to the limit, even questioning whether I would be able to take on another group of students. My negativity with the administration was clearly evident, and a journalism student who was curious about Teach for America was dismayed at my downtrodden attitude. She wrote a short piece on my experience and the following excerpt was taken from her corresponding paper.

"During his first year when he was still new to the system, Lee said, he went to work thinking that he could help every student. When asked how he gets through the days now knowing that he can't fix all problems, he said: 'This year is really different than last year because last year, if you asked me that I would've said no, that's why we're here, to close those cracks. But, just to be frank, it's broken me.'"

Upon reading the article I realized that unless I took on an entirely different approach to teaching, the school year would break my resolve again. The words of Helen Keller could not have rung more true than during those moments, a true test of character: "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved."

With this new-found realization, I internalized new goals that I would strive to accomplish with my students this school year.

  1. Explore the city beyond the confines of our classroom.
  2. Provide a safe haven for my students in the classroom.
  3. Ensure that all 8th grade students will enroll in college preparatory high schools.

With nearly half the school year completed, we are well on our way to achieving these three goals. In turn, my students and I have established a sense of solidarity, which will propel us forward in the coming months.

The Museum of Science and Industry served as the first venue of many trips to come. Many students had never visited the museum, which is less than a ten minute car ride away from our school and offers free admission to my students. In addition to learning about the human body and natural disasters, some students mentioned that it was one of the best school experiences they had ever had. Additionally, through a Saturday trip to the library, I witnessed my students reading independently for a whole hour, an enormous, novel feat to say the least. Ten years from now, they may not remember my lesson on similes versus metaphors, but these experiences will be engrained in our memories forever.

In addition to physical safety, a classroom should serve as a safe haven for students, shielding them from the chaos that often fills their communities. In order to create such an environment in the classroom, we refer to one another as a family. This notion of family manifests itself in the way students help each other during class projects and remind each other to behave. Furthermore, we focus on the big ideas of being stewards and scholars, serving as examples for everyone else in the school.

Learning from my inability to see each of my 8th graders enroll in college preparatory high schools, I made that a high priority this year. We started the year completing mock high school and college applications and are well on our way to numerous acceptance letters in the near future. By attending a high school fair, visiting a high achieving high school, and having high school recruiters come speak in the classroom, my hope is that each student will be enrolled in a school that will dramatically increase the likelihood that they will thrive in the academic arena.

On that note, my students achieved 1 year gains on the ISAT last year (the standardized test for elementary students in Illinois). Of all our teachers, only 4 achieved that. Although it's not everything, it was nice to see that the hard work meant something, and that my students actually learned. I hope that this year will show even more growth, because students such as B. E. deserve it. It would be an injustice to you as a caring sponsor to end this reflection without any mention of B. E., and so I devote this paragraph to her. When I first met B. E., she had a terrible attitude about school, which stemmed from her struggles to read and write coherently. A little over a half year later, she still struggles with her reading and attitude, but has changed more than any other student I have come across. The transformation stems from my ability to earn her trust. She has openly written about my influence on her life, and trusted me enough to let me read a love poem she wrote for her then boyfriend. She explicitly instructed me to read it and revise, but not allow anyone else to do so. I obliged and she was pleasantly surprised with the final product. And while interviewing at a medical school, I had to miss a day of school. During my absence, she pestered other teachers about my whereabouts, asking if I was coming back the next day. They calmed her fears and told her I was, indeed, coming back. And upon my return, she stated that "if you (Mr. Lee) missed another day of school, I was going to slap the Korean out of you." Some people gasp when they hear this. My heart melted.

And with that, I want to again thank those who support me for all they do for my students and I. While our lives could not be any more different, we have come together as a cohesive unit, and our supporters have played an important role in forming the union. I invite you to join us on our journey. We will keep the doors of Room 312 open for you.