In our A City Education series, City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the achievement gap and ending the dropout crisis.
There's an African proverb at the heart of City Year's mission: "It takes a whole village to raise a child." We might be assigned to certain classrooms, but we understand that no student is merely one person’s responsibility. Collaboration is key. Indeed, although 2,000 students attend Normandie Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, there's one student my entire City Year school team knows and helps support: TJ.
TJ's notorious for his vivacity—he rarely sits still, opting instead to sing, dance, and surprise us with his antics. My team leader worked with him when she was a corps member. One of my teammates currently serves in his fifth grade classroom, and in this year's afterschool program, he does his homework with my group and plays outside with another set of corps members. Even teammates who don’t interact with him every day hear anecdotes.
When I first met TJ, I assumed he was simply a bit talkative. My team leader changed my perspective when she played me a video of him dancing very exuberantly. The video was funny, and he definitely has his own unique style, but it showed that for better or for worse, TJ's loud, quirky personality makes it hard for him to fit in.
My teammate Asumi is assigned to TJ’s classroom and she made his story clearer. He's a bright kid who tries incredibly hard, but his relationship with his peers distracts so much that it makes it difficult to translate effort into grades. Students think he's weird and often exclude him from activities and recess games. The rejection doesn’t make focusing in class any easier for him. She explained that TJ is liveliest in the afterschool program because that's where he has friends.
We've been doing our best to make the most of our time with TJ—we don't want TJ to change, we just want him to have better coping tools. Our approach addresses two things: his grades and his overall confidence.
TJ is a performer at heart, but I resist the urge to ask him to dance. Instead, I've introduced him to a game that refocuses all that energy on English language skills. TJ and I take turns spelling out words with letter blocks, scrambling them, and asking each other to arrange the blocks in order. This way, TJ can practice spelling without forcing himself to sit still.
Confidence outside the classroom often boosts academic performance. As such, another corps member and I have been encouraging a friendship between TJ and Mikey, a rambunctious but popular student. When they play together, TJ gets to feel included, and Mikey gets to see why it's important not to judge people too quickly.
What if only one of us had taken responsibility for TJ's success at Normandie? My team wouldn’t have the complete picture. Through our collaboration, we've been able to piece together what TJ needs to reach his full potential. We can't know everything, but each day, we try to make sure TJ has the village he needs.
Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles