Estephany

Block center in one of our preschool’s classrooms.

As a senior in college, I have been in the throes of applying for all the jobs, fellowships, and scholarships I can get my hands on. All of those fellowships, etc., are teaching-related, because I know that I want to teach for at least a year after graduating. Copied below is an excerpt that I have been using in my applications. The story attempts to explain why I like teaching and why I think teaching is meaningful in general.

Of course, there are lots of other ways to have an observable positive impact on people besides teaching, but it was through a teaching role that I first experienced the feeling of helping to change a person’s life for the better and realized that my efforts could truly change a person–even if it was just one little person who loved Dora the Explorer and Hannah Montana.

“¿Qué, um—cuál libro quieres leer?” I managed to blurt out after Circle Time. It was my first day with my partner child, Estephany. She was a four-year-old attending class for the first time, at a public HeadStart preschool center in Washington, D.C. I was also there, working for Jumpstart, an Americorps program for preschoolers from low-income families. I was one of the only members of my team who had taken Spanish classes, so I had agreed to partner with Estephany, an English language learner. This was the start of a rocky, but ultimately fruitful, one-year relationship during which Estephany learned to be a student, and I began to learn how to be a teacher.

Over one year later, I was working for DC Schools Project, a literacy program for the DC immigrant community, at another public school. It was a Saturday morning; Spanish-speaking adults were taking free English classes in the classrooms upstairs while I offered enriching learning games to their children downstairs in the gymnasium. I had set out books, pencils, crayons, worksheets, and long strips of butcher paper. A dozen children of all ages trickled in, and to my surprise, Estephany was among them.

Seeing her again was profound. By this time, I had assisted and tutored in two more schools with other English language learners. But this was Estephany, my very first student. And no longer was this the fickle, bossy, anti-social Estephany pouting in a corner and crying when she heard English. Instead, she was beaming, skipping, laughing, and nonchalantly chatting with her cousins in English. She was drawing a picture on the butcher paper and writing her whole name next to it. She was even writing down numbers and adding them together!

It made me dizzy with pride for her and for myself, because I remembered being there, coaching and coaxing her along, when she wrote her very first E, then S, then T, then, finally, the rest. I remembered racking my brains to discover ways to make writing those numbers novel and interesting for her. I remembered scouring public libraries for Spanish-language books that would appeal to her capricious interests. I remembered consoling her in Spanish when she cried because she was intimidated by hearing English—and feeling like crying myself because I, too, was learning to communicate conversationally in a second language, and it really is hard.

Seeing Estephany again was when I genuinely committed myself to teaching. It was clear she was doing well and that I had a part in her positive development. In all the other organized endeavors I have given my energy to—printing newspapers, creating artwork, working in offices, building websites—I had never been so sure of my positive impact on the world as this one little girl made me.

PS: Other things that make teaching worthwhile include witnessing a three-year-old write down the names of Transformers characters in almost perfectly-formed letters. Learning can be powerful and magical and awe-inspiring.

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