In 2013, I began my freshman year at Rice University and had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to study history and do something positive for the world, but did not need frequent reminders from my Mechanical Engineering-focused friends to know that the job market is weak for history majors focused on social justice. I had spent the previous two summers working as a camp counselor, and knew that I loved working with and mentoring kids. After an information session with the Rice Teacher Education department, my career goal hit me like a ton of bricks: I would be a high school history teacher. Since then, I have been extremely focused on my teaching goals. Through the noble subject of history, I will give my students the inspiration and education needed to overcome structural inequality, achieve their educational and career dreams, and become activists for social justice in their communities. I probably take myself too seriously.
In pursuit of my teaching goals, I’ve spent the past eight weeks as a Writers in the Schools intern, observing writers and teachers in classrooms and workshops, teaching lessons myself, and assisting with camp logistics. As a prospective teacher, I was excited for the chance to improve my teaching, classroom management, and lesson planning through this internship. While my practical teaching abilities did improve this summer, my experiences with WITS most notably improved my perspective and attitude towards education.
While preparing to be a teacher, I have heard plenty of horror stories about dysfunctional schools suffering from internal strife, unreasonable administrators, overwhelmed teachers, and unmotivated students. Many of the best educators I have met stress the serious nature of their mission, struggling heroically against the socio-economic forces and lack of resources that reduce educational opportunity for students in urban public schools. While I try to focus on the positive when envisioning my future in education, I too fall into the trap of emphasizing the obstacles I will face as a public school teacher in Houston. We get lost in arguments about STAAR testing, funding inequities, and charter schools and forget that the subjects of these disagreements are children.
At WITS summer camps, I was able to forget the baggage surrounding education and enjoy learning alongside the students. WITS teachers write, sing, and act with their students, creating a classroom culture of joy and creativity. Given a safe space to take risks with their ideas, kids quickly blossom into authors with the ability to be silly and serious. First graders dance around with excitement about the play they are writing starring a talking pink ocelot. Awkward, quiet middle schoolers turn into confident poetry performers. Without the pressure of standardized testing, teachers can focus on nurturing a love of reading and writing, a positive classroom atmosphere, and step-by-step improvement in academic skills. To create this educational environment, WITS educators share lesson plans, plan curriculum together, and frequently teach as a team.
My grandiose big-picture goals of changing students’ lives and changing the world through my teaching remain. However, my WITS internship taught me that I must focus on the basics of what education should be: fascinating, joyful, and collaborative. If I focus on the big picture only, I will be overwhelmed. If I concentrate on creating a positive classroom culture like that found in a WITS classroom, I know my larger teaching goals will take care of themselves.
By Joel Thompson
Joel Thompson was an Educational Marketing Intern at WITS in 2015, sponsored by the Shell Nonprofit Internship Program. He will be a junior at Rice University this fall.