by Alyssa Schwenk, CAS ’10
When I was at Penn, I had a certain routine: up at 9, class, gym, library until 3. A late lunch with friends, then into the Daily Pennsylvanian offices to report, write, and edit until the wee hours. I’d break for dinner around 7, return to the office, go home around 12:30, catch up with roommates, do homework, and send emails until about 2:30, when I’d crash. Lather, rinse, repeat. I loved it.
Now — two months into my second year teaching in D.C. through Teach for America — I can’t give you a daily schedule. I have the broadest strokes: Up at ten till six, at school by seven, and the kids come at eight. After that — who knows. While there’s an academic schedule, no two days even resemble one another. Some days, my math lesson goes amazingly, and every one of my 23 kindergarteners can count to 20 (trust me, it’s a big deal). Other days, there’s a tough-tough-tough conversation with a parent, an administrator, or a social worker. Or there’s an earthquake. So it goes. It’s an experience unlike any other, and one that I’m incredibly proud of doing on a daily basis.
I joined TFA immediately after graduating Penn in 2010, surprising even my closest family and friends. In September of senior year, excited and anxious about the future, I’d decided to apply. I wanted to try something new, to push myself farther: It was time to put myself in a situation that was bigger than me, one that made an impact in the world. I also was struck by how unbelievably lucky I’d been to spend four years at Penn, for being from a family with the savvy to make that happen, even if we didn’t have the resources. I wanted to give back. Like most major life decisions, it wasn’t exactly planned, but in retrospect, it made perfect sense.
Everyone I’d asked about TFA said, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” While I appreciated the enormity of the work, I also saw the phrase and the sentiment as partly cliché: If closing the achievement gap were easy, obviously it would have happened. Of course it was tough. I was expecting hard and frustrating and a learning curve on teaching. I was expecting to experience situations that I had never encountered. I was expecting steep statistical odds and long nights and a struggle.
But I was not expecting the crash course in emotions, acceptance, and letting go. It’s all in how you look at it. Nothing can ache more than watching a child, who you see every day, who you taught to do multiplication and whose shoes you tie and whose milk you open, not getting what she needs and deserves. But nothing can bring you as much joy as that same child figuring out how to really do subtraction for the first time. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing a student dealing with a situation that can’t be fixed through hard work and strategizing, but nothing is more empowering than seeing that student learn to read, count, and think independently. Even just eight weeks into the school year, I can already see enormous growth in my five-year-olds. Seeing my hard work pay off in such a concrete, immediate and life-changing way — so soon after leaving college — is a rare and amazing privilege. It’s that ability to affect change in my students’ lives that keeps me going on a daily basis.