A Dollar Worth Earning

Oscar's blog pictureBy Oscar Guzman – As long as I approached each day with an open mind, I knew I would leave class with a dollar well earned. In fact, it was the journey that was more rewarding than the actual prize.

As a senior in high school, I took part in a student teaching program offered to a select few. What started as a twice a week program, quickly became a daily routine. What started as one, one hour long class, slowly became three, one hour long classes. What started as being a student teacher for twenty students, miraculously turned to fifty students. What started as a resume builder, surprisingly became a part of my character.

I didn’t ask to be a mentor for fifty students. I didn’t ask to build long-lasting relationships with fifty students. I was blessed to have been a mentor for fifty students. I was blessed to have built long-lasting relationships with fifty students. “You’re changing their lives, Oscar,” my teacher whom I was student teaching with would tell me. She’s just saying that, I would tell myself. There is no way that my presence has had that big of an influence on their lives.

However, just after a week into the semester, these students meant a great deal to me. I looked forwarded to student teaching, and when I would walk into the classroom, I was greeted with open arms. There were some students who would approach me every day and ask how I was doing. There were others that would simply smile. Each student was different, but I cared for each one equally. I wanted each one to be successful in their own way.

First semester of my senior year, I student taught (“co-taught”) with my freshmen year English teacher in her honors freshmen English class. Then, by second semester, I was approached by my sophomore year honors English teacher asking if I would be willing to help out in her AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) class. Without hesitation, I agreed.

Through lectures and one-on-one discussions, I was quickly able to build relationships with my students. At first, they were timid around me. I needed to prove to them that I wasn’t there to catch them doing something wrong, nor make their class experience worse; I was there to help them with their homework, and I was there to support them along the way. I needed to prove that I was one of them – I wasn’t their classmate, nor was I there teacher; I was (although I didn’t realize it at the beginning) their mentor.

Each class offered me a distinct experience. For instance, honors English was home to motived students who took on the challenge of demanding participation and rigorous coursework. These students knew what was expected from the teacher and aimed higher. These students were expected to succeed in high school and attend college.

Then, I had my students in my AVID class. Before I say more, I should explain what AVID truly is. According to their website, “AVID’s mission is to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society.” AVID is a recognized program nationwide that targets students eager to learn skills needed to succeed both academically and emotionally, and (at least in my school) has a huge emphasis on helping first generation college-bound students who seek extra motivation.

As a first-generation college student, there was an unspoken commonality between my students and me. They were hesitate to ask for my help, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to rise up to their needs. What I have learned from teaching through this experience is the fact that there is no definite way to approach every student because each student has a different level of needs and wants. For instance, after working with honors students for a whole semester, I needed to adjust to the standards set by the teacher in AVID. What made AVID so influential was the fact that the teacher didn’t have a set standard for the students, but rather worked with each student individually to decide what standards were appropriate for their needs and wants.

And that was my job. I cared for all my students equally in the sense that I cared about helping them with their needs and wants in order to have them succeed. I spent days reaching out to my students so that I could best learn how I could help them with their studies. And although some were easily able to open up and have me take part in their lives, it wasn’t until I gave a presentation on my struggles and success that they realized my role and began to appreciate my presences. In fact, that was when I knew I wanted to teach.

Going into my senior year as a teacher’s aide, I wasn’t expecting to do much besides helping students with their homework, and in return I would have an additional extracurricular activity to put on my resume (yeah, I know, that was selfish of me). However, I did not realize the impact this program had on my personality until my friends would tell me to shut about my students. Honestly, I would brag about my students to my friends, and I would share the incredible things I learned from them, because a teacher can learn as much – if not more – from their students than they can learn from us.

However, in order to do so, a teacher must enter the classroom each day with an open mind, and allow for discussion in the classroom. I did not get paid for this program, and yet I gave up two and a half hours each day to help them out. By approaching each day with an open mind, and allowing my character to change, I can proudly say that I was awarded recognition and scholarships for my effort. Was that my motivation to help my students? Obviously not – but it was definitely the cherry on top.

And so the presentation I gave to them proved how similar we were (in fact, how similar we all are as the human race). What I have learned from my short exposure to teaching and long experience as a student is that many fail in life not because they reached too high and fell, but because they reached down low and stood.

As a Mexican born in America, I was not expected to go far in life, to the point that I believed it. And that’s what is wrong with the education system today. There are courses like remedial classes and special education that target students who are “below average.” By placing them into a class that “dumbs down” the content so that the students may understand the material, the students are not challenged and lack the confidence to rise up from the label. Essentially, they are stuck. However, I wasn’t accepting failure as my reality. I would, and continue to, fight for a better reality, because no reality is set in stone.

My students in my AVID class felt the same way, and AVID helped them fight against those stereotypes. AVID wasn’t a remedial or special education class. It didn’t focus on merit, but rather on the motivation a student had to succeed – hence why there were no universally set standards.

A week before graduating, I reminded my students that if they ever failed, it was because they were reaching too low. I reminded them that, to succeed, they need to aim high and reach higher. So many people are afraid to reach high because they fear falling, but that’s the beauty of success. Those who have succeeded (according to their standards of success), did so by falling multiple times but having the confidence to keep standing. By reaching low, we are ruining our chances of experiencing something new. We must learn to change our mindset and in return, we (hopefully) will have the courage to reach higher.

On graduation day, I didn’t get to say goodbye to my teachers whom I worked with – and I’m glad I didn’t because I would have probably been bursting with tears. Instead, I saw them from a distance, acknowledged their presence and their guidance that had led me to that moment. And then, I left.

What makes teaching one of if not the most rewarding career is that educators are guiding the future generations so that they may build a stable society. We as teachers are blessed with sharing our knowledge and wisdom to our students so that they may also spread their knowledge and wisdom to their offspring and those who they may encounter. Ultimately, teaching is driving the evolution and progression of the human race.

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