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6 Life Lessons You'll Learn From Teach for America

United States Student Work
by Sofia Neilsen Jan 22, 2015

MY FIRST real journey after college was working eighty hours a week with a classroom of high school students in one of the most under-resourced and challenging school districts in Massachusetts. I left the classroom (for now) to travel after my two-year, rigorous, and exceptionally difficult teaching commitment with Teach for America, but the following lessons are some of the most important pieces of luggage I carry with me as I backpack around the world.

1. Share what you love.

My last and most successful unit I ever taught was on culture and global awareness. I believe people become curious when they see you are passionate about a subject, and I saw that with my students. The most engaging lessons I taught were when I went all out, dressing in my Indian sari, bringing a bowl of Ghanaian groundnut soup and fufu, or showing them Tibetan mandalas to get them excited about the reading for the day.

And in turn, the students rose to leadership positions and demonstrated mastery when presenting information on their own cultures and on rigorous country projects at the end of the unit. They showed me that people appreciate and respond when you are authentic and share who you are and what you care about. It also reminded me that travel is something I truly care about, and that I should keep living what I love.

2. Set meaningful goals.

Teach For America is laser focused on setting goals for your classroom with the assumption that if you set an ambitious bar, your students will reach for it. SMART goals (goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) made a difference in my classes. When I had students set their own individual goals and followed up with them on a regular basis, they rose above the expectation and often surprised themselves. Seeing this pan out, and their pride in their learning, made me realize that writing up goal plans is helpful for anyone, including myself. Using this same structure I made a plan to earn and save the thousands of dollars I would need to travel around the world for at least a year — a dream I have held for years. Following the example of my students, I reached my goal.

3. Push yourself.

There were days and even weeks when the alarm clock screeched at 5:00 AM that I did not think I could do it, but I kept pushing myself like I pushed my students. Sometimes it felt like I was doing the impossible by convincing Jose to not walk out of class to finish a final, or empowering Javier to spent extra time with me reading during lunch to help remediate his 3rd grade reading scores.

I never gave up on my kids, even when they cursed me out, broke a window, or vowed they didn’t care about their education and wouldn’t come to school for weeks. I never stopped believing in their incredible potential, so why not in me and in myself? By pushing them, I pushed myself, and in helping them I also grew. This is a pattern I will continue to follow on the road despite setbacks that might arise.

4. Be present.

I have always been the kind of person who shakes my foot at the doctor’s office and finishes my meal before everyone else. Sometimes it feels there is so much to do and not enough time, but teaching tempered me. Teens can easily discern if you are really present or listening, and my students never failed to point out when I fell below the mark. I learned to treat each teaching hour as if it really mattered and to devote my whole attention to a student’s answer before formulating a response. Presence is an important lesson in travel as well. If you live in the moment with your surroundings and the people you meet, even if you know it will be temporary, you open yourself to learn and see much more — the textures of the bricks, the way the road bends at the fork, and the smile of the local fish seller when he tells you a story.

5. Surround yourself with people who inspire and uplift you.

I could not have lasted the two years without the relentless support of family, friends, and mentors — the people who helped dig my car out of the snow when I was late for work or who listened to me during depression spells late at night. These were the people who reminded me why I was teaching and what my strengths were when I felt drained of everything.

My family and best friends are the ones who empowered me and rekindled my hope when it flickered. They are the same ones who still get excited about my successes, hear me out on my stresses, read my drafts, and never feel overpowered or jealous of my travels. For me, I need to surround myself with people who uplift me and support my dreams, no matter where I meet them in the world.

6. Take time to reflect.

Reflection is a vital component of growth. I had my students do journal writing to help facilitate this process, because I know it helps me grow by giving me space and time to reflect on where I have been and what I want to change.

Taking this time also helps me to step back and see the bigger picture. Even during the busiest times at Teach For America, I tried to do things that had nothing to do with work to refuel. I think the same is important in travel. Journaling daily on the road helps me digest what I saw and learned and gives me a sense of how I am doing. Not only is this important for me to reread and make meaning out of, but it forces me to take the time I need to be alone with my thoughts. Journaling isn’t for everyone, but taking time for yourself in some way is important. This is one way that I prioritize “me time” when I travel.

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