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A City Education: Unexpected Lessons Learned From Students

We can all learn something from every single person we meet, including a bunch of 8 to 10-year-olds in Watts.

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 opportunity gap and ending the dropout crisis.

Like most City Year Los Angeles corps members, I arrived at my school—Normandie Avenue Elementary—with a simple goal: helping students learn. Whatever the subject, I knew I wanted to share the knowledge I've been lucky enough to acquire.

But did I teach my students more than they taught me? Doubtful.

City Year Los Angeles has an accomplished corps. We've excelled in school, volunteered in our communities, and taken on various leadership positions. Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that Reco Sanders, a team leader at Samuel Gompers Middle School, received California's AmeriCorps Member of the Year award from Governor Jerry Brown. But no level of achievement means that learning is over. It never ends—we can all learn something from every single person we meet.

The eight- to 10-year-olds I served this year were no exception.

Very quickly, my students taught me to hold myself accountable. Adults tend to refrain from asking too many questions, but children almost never have reservations about asking you why you make certain choices. Whenever I missed a day of work, my students made me explain—in detail. Whenever I worked with one student for an especially long time, other students asked me to justify my decision. I even found myself talking about the snacks I ate during recess (that’s when I stopped bringing chocolate and started bringing fruit). Sometimes, constantly giving answers was tiring, but it reminded me to check myself. Was I making choices I could explain to my students with conviction?

A bit later in the year, I learned how often kids rise to the occasion when they're given a challenge. Initially, I was afraid to give responsibilities to students who often acted out. The model I'd always been taught goes like this: the better you behave, the more responsibility you get, and if you don’t behave, you don't get any responsibilities. The end.

The problem is, when kids get no opportunities to prove that they're capable, they start to believe that they truly aren't. Sometimes, it's not a bad idea to give a supposedly "undeserving" student a task. I remember exactly when this idea clicked for me: I was watching one of our after-school program's most mischievous students MC the talent show with poise and grace.

Finally, my students taught me how important it is to be present for the little things. My corps year has been stressful at points, but I can’t count the number of funny and endearing moments that put everything in perspective.

One moment in particular stands out. Cara, a girl whose bullying often lands her in the principal’s office, was walking through the auditorium one morning. I said, "Good morning." She smiled, wiggled around and replied, "My backpack says 'hi.' " Some students are a struggle to work with, but even the most combative kids have a certain sweetness inside them—a certain creativity that speaks to their potential. To me, being a corps member is all about noticing and nurturing it.

I spent about 1,700 hours in my uniform this year—I must have created about 1,700 memories. Those memories may fade over time, but I know these lessons won't. And if my students can say the same about the lessons I taught them, I consider this year a success.

Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles

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