As an education major, I expected my internship with the U.S. Department of Education to help me to better understand federal policies. I didn’t necessarily expect it to inspire me, but my time at ED’s Regional Office in Chicago has done just that. I’ve been able to connect what I’ve learned in college to the real-life motivations of educators throughout the U.S., which were highlighted here on Homeroom earlier this year.
For example, I’ve learned through my studies at Vanderbilt University about the impact that talented, committed teachers who genuinely believe in their students’ potential can have on the large achievement gaps in the U.S. between disadvantaged children and their more fortunate peers. The story of Marcus Jackson, principal of Kendrick Middle School in Jonesboro, Georgia, brought that lesson to life for me. Nearly 20 years ago he left his position at an afterschool recreation center to pursue a teaching degree.
Jackson’s decision to change careers crystallized when one of the brightest children at the recreation center failed all of his classes. Confused, Jackson met with the child’s teacher. He recalls the teacher saying, “If you think these students are the future, we need a backup plan! These boys are going to be drug dealers, and these girls will become pregnant.”
Jackson couldn’t disagree more. He decided to become a teacher to ensure that “all kids can succeed in school and in life.” Almost 20 years later, Jackson’s passion has helped his school progress into the top 10 percent of all Title I schools in Georgia.
Similarly, Joan Maurer, a middle school teacher from Roots International Academy in Oakland, California, shared that she “became a teacher to be there for the students who don’t come from wealthy neighborhoods. I want to close that equity gap.”
Many students enter college undecided about their majors, and Waunakee Middle School teacher Rachel Rydzewski was one of them. The Waunakee, Wisconsin teacher had a college opportunity to mentor immigrant students. Through the experience, she realized that all students don’t have access to the same opportunities she’d enjoyed, growing up in suburban Milwaukee.
“I came to the realization that education was the answer [to the challenges caused by disparity],” said Rydzewski, Wisconsin’s 2010 Teacher of the Year.
The fight against inequity inspires many to students to become teachers. It’s also a daily motivator for many veteran educators like third-grade teacher Kristen Goncalves of Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Dorchester, Massachusetts. At Henderson, students who have disabilities learn side-by-side with their nondisabled peers
“Children learn to be compassionate; they don’t see any differences between themselves,” said Goncalves about her school’s inclusive format, which has generated state designation as a “high performer” in language arts, and a long waiting list.
Contrary to the myths, none of these educators entered the field — or stay in it — to get a summer vacation, or for the money. As a future teacher, I am driven to join the profession in its fight against inequality, one student at a time.
Shannon Ruge is a student at Vanderbilt University and an intern in ED’s regional Office of Communications and Outreach in Chicago. ED regional OCO staffers Joe Barison, Malissa Coleman, Julie Ewart and Olga Pirela also contributed to the story.