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AMERICORPS Reflections

Reflections on a Year of National Service

~September 2011~

Editor's Note: This is the third year that an AmeriCorps or VISTA member from the Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team has written a reflections column for Volunteer. Ellie Klein has written for Volunteer Today for this past year. She is off to teach in Spain, but will continue as a columnist for VT. Thanks for penetrating columns each month. We wish you well. These columns are a reflections of the impact that volunteering has on someone's life. Enjoy.

Federal Way AmeriCorps and VISTA Team. Established in 1995, the Federal Way AmeriCorps program works to strengthen the Federal Way community through academic tutoring and modeling an ethic of service.

AmeriCorps members in Federal Way serve full time in the Federal Way Public Schools. In addition to tutoring students and developing before and after school programs, members manage two community tutoring programs, implement civic engagement community projects and serve in area service projects. AmeriCorps members also recruit and train community volunteers. For more information on their programs http://www.fwps.org/dept/volunteer/acfw.html


When I was at an AmeriCorps conference in Yakima, Washington last November, I overheard one of my colleagues say, “I love my job, but wish there wasn’t a need for me.” At first, I nodded along, pretending to fully understand what he was saying. That next week I held onto his words. Months later and I am still contemplating what this meant for him and why it resonated with me.

I love what I am doing as an AmeriCorps tutor, but I wish public schools didn’t need me to assist in their classrooms. I wish class sizes were smaller, curricula always engaged our youth and all teachers knew how to effectively manage their students. The observation, assistance, and facilitation I have done in AmeriCorps has taught me a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in the classroom.

I have seen a wide spectrum of teachers and teaching techniques this year. Some were amazing and some were distressingly substandard. Watching the bad teachers not only bore, but disrespect students was gut wrenching, frustrating and downright unsettling. When I was recently talking to an administrator about a disagreement I had witnessed between a student and a teacher, he called me a “third set of eyes” and acknowledged that he does not usually benefit from that outside perspective.

In the last month of my job I was surrounded by state testing and e-mails about unions. I began thinking more about the unique position I have held as a volunteer in the public school system this year. Often going unnoticed in the back corner, I saw the drama of bad teaching unfold before me. I witnessed teachers snap at students for mild eaglesigndisturbances, cry when students were being disrespectful and bully teenagers about their race, ethnicity, gender or dating history. Although I did not agree with how these teachers behaved, I am aware that extreme pressure can cause us to react in unsatisfactory ways.

Simultaneously, as a 23-year-old liberal arts college graduate, I am confronted with the fact that, especially in this economy, America is a place where the strongest survive. I recently watched the pro-education reform documentary Waiting for Superman. The film pointed to statistics that show how in any profession, besides teaching, hard work and good results are rewarded with higher salaries, while poor performance will lose you your job. The documentary said that if a doctor is harming patients, they will be let go (one out of every 57 doctors loses their license, to be exact). If a lawyer is losing cases, they will get fired (one out of every 97). If a teacher is failing to educate their students, more often than not, they will get tenure (only one out of every 1000 teachers is fired for performance based reasons). Of course this is not always the case, and each school is different, but this year alone, I watched two teachers absolutely disrespect, distract and if anything, disengage their students from academia. Yet next year, as new bright, motivated and caring teachers are desperately trying to get into the field, these instructors will get to stay in their jobs.

On my last day of working in my ELL classroom, I handed out personalized cards to all my students. Each card had a word I had picked to describe them in English and translated into their native language. When I handed one of my most dedicated students, Ben, his card, he took it and instantly went to the back of the classroom, intently reading the note inside. I wrote Ben that I know many of his teachers and his peers pick on him for being slow to complete his work, and because of that, I know he often feels stupid. I told him that from working with him over the past year, I know his slowness is not stupidity, but rather an acute attention to detail that will serve him well in life. I told him he was smart and that I would be sending him good thoughts next year as he graduated from high school. The card was not long. It did not say much. These were sentiments I had expressed to Ben all year long, yet when Ben finished reading his card I saw his face light up. He looked up with a grin searching for me in the room. “This is really what you think of me?” he asked. “Yes Ben, of course that it what I think of you.” He smiled again and looked back down at his card. “Thank you Ms.Klein, thank you?

One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is encouragement. When you are burned out and focused on your own tribulations, it is hard to lift other people up. My dad, a recently retired child psychologist, told me the other week that sometimes you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can go about helping anyone else put on theirs. I was lucky this year. Raisied in a world full of possibilities, encouragement and support, my oxygen mask was already firmly in place. I surely had struggles this year, but none as bad as those of my students. I kept my frustrations, stresses and mood swings apart from my interactions with them. I know I am young, I know I am motivated and I know that part of the reason I was able to succeed, is because I knew this job was only temporary.

I am not a perfect AmeriCorps member and I would not be a perfect teacher, but I know well enough to keep my personal drama outside of the lives’ of my students. All teachers should have that same awareness. Just as a doctor should not be seeing patients if he or she is physically ill, a teacher should not be instructing students if he or she cannot handle the emotional pressure of the job. Working with students is hard. It can be lonely and lack support, and students will push and test their instructors at every turn. But, that is the nature of the field. Teachers should have protection, but not protection against their own failure. We are in a cutthroat economy and job market. You must have persistence, innovative ideas and drive to succeed in any field. If you are a bad teacher, if you cannot handle the stress of the job, if you do not like students or working with kids – get out, find another job, find another career. Our clients are our students. Our interests should be their best interests. Our priority should be their education, not our own job security. This all seems obvious, yet bad teachers continue to teach, and we allow them to stay there.

Today, as my elementary schoolers were getting ready for snack at our after-school program turned summer camp, one of my 2nd graders ran up to me, threw her arms around me and said “I am never letting you go.” As I am four days away from the end of my term as an AmeriCorps volunteer, I leave knowing that I have loved my students more than I could have possibly imagined, but I wish only good teachers remained, all schools served students’ best interests and my students didn’t need me as much I fear they still do.

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Ellie Klein graduated from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA in May of 2010 with a degree in Media Studies. She is currently serving with the Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps team as a tutor at Decatur High School and volunteer at the Westway After School Program where she tries to engage students in learning through personal reflections and cross-content understandings.

Corporation for National and Community Service

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