When I was 21 years old, I had the great fortune & honor to teach a group of men at a minimum security prison outside of Madison, WI. Largely made up of men on their way out of the confines of prison, the course was focused on giving them coping skills and strategies to deal with life back on the outside, in hopes of preventing recidivism.
As most of the men were at least ten years my senior, I went into this experience with a very humble approach and the mindset that I would likely learn more from them than they from me. Because of our age difference, I was somewhat nervous before my first day. I put in a lot of thought as to how best I should introduce myself and explain my presence in front of them. After all, what in the hell could a young guy like me teach them?
On the day of our first class, I decided to arrange our chairs in a circle as if to suggest that we were all among equals and that everyone had as much of a voice as the person next to him. I could almost literally feel a sigh of relief as the men filed in for our first session, as they saw from the structure of the room that they weren’t to be lectured at, but rather engaged in conversation.
Conversation flowed well on that first day and continued from where we left off each week after that. From these conversations, we grew to know and understand each other quite well. Slowly, I began to see these men for what they really were: people that had made mistakes. Increasingly, too, I began to learn just how much each of these men had in common with each other: namely, most of them came from underprivileged backgrounds and were not afforded the same resources as many others. To be clear–and in testament to the character and maturity of each of these men–not one of them blamed their fates on their childhood, but it was apparent that they had all lacked something critical in their formative years. In one way or another, all of these men had been slighted.
7 months later our class was ending and one of my students–Randy–pulled me aside to give me a handmade card, signed by himself and the rest of my class. I’ll never forget that sincere look of respect and appreciation on his face as he gave me what to this day is still the best gift I’ve ever received. The gratefulness and deep respect each man had for the time we had spent together was evident in each of the short notes they had written.
Almost as an aside as I was walking out of the classroom for the last time, Randy quipped: “Y’know; I wish I woulda had a teacher like you back in middle school–ya know; someone who cared and who coulda told me there was more out there. Maybe then I wouldn’t be here.”
More than any particular bit of dialogue we had had throughout our entire time together, Randy’s comment hit me. For its honesty and its genuineness and, most of all, for its truthfulness: if more of these men–if more people from low-income neighborhoods that experience gaps in opportunities from even before the first day they set foot on this planet–had had that type of teacher, maybe they truly wouldn’t have been there.
Because of those men and because of Randy, I applied to Teach For America and, two weeks after college graduation and with two large suitcases stuffed to the gills, I left behind my family, friends and support network and moved to Houston, Texas. Fueled by the boundless energy and passion of youth and driven directly by my experiences with people who were the living embodiment of a fate all too common for those in our lowest socioeconomic brackets, it was my mission to try to be that teacher that Randy talked about. It was my hope to help instill a love for learning in as many children as possible.
Throughout those first two years, I had an incredible amount of eye-opening experiences that, simply, I’d never been privy to in my own life. Like realizing that Bianca was having a hard time learning the English word for “bed,” not because the ability was beyond her, but simply because she’d never seen a bed in real life and thus was struggling to understand the concept. Or that time that I got so frustrated with Demetrio after fielding a phone call about him hanging around the school late at night, only to learn upon calling his mom that her two jobs prevented her from getting him right after school and she was too anxious about communicating in English to ask for help.
Things that I could never have even imagined as a child growing up in a comfortable two-parent home in Suburban, USA, with my stay-at-home-mom, summer camps and after-school sports. Things that were not even in my mental lexicon growing up. Yet my students had to deal with things like this on a regular-enough basis that they weren’t necessarily even always phased by them. Imagine what that does to a developing brain?
Yet despite all of this, my students trudged on–and thrived. Bianca came in with a smile and eager appetite to learn each and every day. Demetrio’s generous nature was always on display–whether in his knowing smile after one of my many ill-fated attempts at humor or the fact that he could always be counted on to help out a classmate in need. My school’s Parent Teacher Association put on marvelous events throughout the year and our community showed up and supported each and every time. It was truly an incredible place and examples abound of the strong spirit of resilience and community displayed by all of my students and every one of their families.
Because of the children and families I met in my first two years teaching, I decided to sign up for a third year in the classroom. Seeking something slightly different, I moved to New York, where I got right to work at a still-founding school in Bed Stuy. Because of the impact I saw and the relationships I built that year, I came back for a fourth year in the classroom. Hitting my groove, years 5, 6 and 7 were a blur of hard work, incredible memories and unforgettable events. During this time, I worked with some incredible colleagues and served some of the most dedicated families and scholars I’ve ever met.
Something about the end of year 7 had me thinking, though. I’m not sure if it was seeing many of my old teacher-friends moving on and moving up in the business world or watching others embark on successful law careers or seeing still others pursue passions more artistic in nature, but I struggled. Was I doing the right thing? Should I be doing something different? Or was there more to be done?
Unsure of any of those answers and without a firm desire to make any drastic changes in my life, I signed up for year 8 this past fall. In many ways, it was my toughest year yet. But I pushed on and–I’m not sure if it was the joy of getting to teach the younger brothers and sisters of my former students, the pleasure of watching my school grow into a vibrant community institution, or the fact that I get to work with the most dedicated and diverse group of professionals each and every day–but I finished the year with a smile.
Now, as I gear up for year 9 in just a few short weeks, I can say with the utmost certainty I’m in the right place. A place where students come to learn every day and where families come to celebrate nearly as often. A place where futures are made brighter. A place, I like to think, that Randy would be proud to call home.
Jake Jung is a TFA Alum (Houston ’09) and will begin his 9th year teaching this fall, taking on the new challenge of founding a Computer Science department at his school in Brooklyn, NY. Jake is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and holds a Masters from Relay Graduate School of Education. Additionally, Jake will begin a two-year term as one of two Brooklyn Borough President Appointees on Community Education Council 13, where he will serve the families and students of his neighborhood in an even greater capacity by ensuring their voices are well-represented in NYC DOE policies and practices.
Jake Jung is a guest blogger for OneTeacher whose views and publications on other platforms are his/her own and are not endorsed by or affiliated with OneTeacher.