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A City Education: If We Want Students to Get on Our Level, We Have to Get on Theirs

When students see learning as helping them reach their goals and achieve dreams, that's when success happens.

In our A City Education series, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the achievement gap and ending the dropout crisis.

At Normandie Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, I've spent much of my service finding ways to convince students that their schoolwork is important—more important than, say, a game of tag or the latest gossip.

Still, even if I want a student to practice multiplication and he wants to listen to music, when it comes down to it, we both have a fundamental desire for the same things: respect and genuine connection. That desire is what makes us human. No matter what skill I'm teaching, I always strive to tap into it.

Ubuntu, one of City Year's core values, is a philosophy that comes from the Zulu tribe in South Africa: "I am a person through other people; my humanity is tied to yours." Ubuntu is about honoring everyone. Every person in the world is connected, so the success of one person furthers the success of all people.

This philosophy guides corps members through the day-to-day challenges of being a tutor and mentor. Teaching effectively is about more than explaining concepts. It's also about building collaborative relationships grounded in mutual respect. Obviously, corps members believe education is worthwhile, but we can't assume that our students will automatically feel the same way. If we want them to get on our level, we have to first get on theirs.

Since the beginning of the year, one student in the fifth grade class I serve has been particularly dramatic in her quest to avoid work. Katie has argued, cried, and even lain on a bench and refused to move.

I'll be honest: I was getting frustrated and Katie made the prospect of giving up kind of appealing. I thought about taking the easy route and working with students who were eager to participate. Still, I knew that, like everyone else, Katie wanted to be valued for something. My job was to find out what it was and connect it to school.

One day during recess, Katie told me that she wanted to become an actor. (I should have guessed.) Her eyes lit up as she described her previous forays into performing. Thinking on my feet, I told her that actors need to be able to read fluently to ace auditions and that they need to be great at math so that they always know how much money they have.

The conversation was short, and I wasn’t sure she'd remember it. Nevertheless, a few weeks later, Katie brought it up.

"We need to get through this story, Katie," I said. "Remember, you need—"

"To read well so I can read my lines," she replied, finishing my sentence. "And do math well so I can count my money."

Katie remembered what I said because I connected education with something she values in herself: her ability to act. Previously, as far as she was concerned, I was simply making her do work she didn’t want to do. Now, she's more likely to see us as a team: I'm trying to help her gain certain skills so she can reach her goals.

What's more, Katie taught me a valuable lesson about how we make change happen within our students. When you face a force to be reckoned with, one of the most powerful tools is patience. It's not easy to keep going when you don't see results, but many little steps get you farther than a few grand strides.

Katie and I don't always want the exact same things, but we're not competing. We learn from each other; our success is linked. That’s what Ubuntu looks like in action.

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Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles

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