Once again, with a restlessness in my heart, I find myself on the road away from home. I wasn't really planning this trip, nor was I anticipating it with much fervor. I approached my recent two-week vacation to Boston with much more excitement and energy than this mission trip to New Orleans. You see, it wasn't my idea to go on this mission, and from the moment I was asked to join, I wasn't totally committed. I was merely another body to fill out the mission team. I didn't plan many details, felt mostly out of the loop, and was pretty much just along for the ride. I even felt a little guilty, taking time off from a recently new job, abandoning my coworkers and students yet again for my own pleasure trips. Fortunately, the Lord had a better plan in mind for me. Little did I know the lessons and insights I would learn on this trip.
But in order for these insights to have any meaning, you have to know that lately I have been quite preoccupied with figuring my life out. Before I graduated college, I always had a plan. I always had a goal to strive for and a straight path that would get me there. My steady progress through school worked like clockwork, or like a nice geometric proof, each step following logically, clearly, and orderly from the last, towards a common and elegant goal. Suddenly, all in a matter of months, my goals converged seamlessly. I studied abroad, completed my senior portfolio, received my bachelor's degrees in elementary education and mathematics, obtained my teaching licenses in Wisconsin and Iowa, and moved into my own living space. Major life goals accomplished! This sounds like something to rejoice about, and I did some rejoicing; however, my sense of accomplishment rapidly diminished into a sinking emptiness as I wondered, "What's next? Where do I go from here?" All this work to get me where I am, and I don't know where I'm going.
The logical part of my brain is telling me, "You finally have your teaching license! Get a job in a classroom in a nice suburb of Milwaukee and start gaining experience teaching in the mainstream. You had a plan: graduate, sub until summer, get two years of teaching experience in the states, two years of experience teaching abroad, back to school to get your master's in mathematics education, and continue becoming a better and better math teacher." It was flawless.
Until I received one small email that would change my life. It was an inconsequential email. It almost got ignored, like many requests crowding the inbox. It was simple, just a supplication from a staff person at my home church in Mequon (which I only get to attend intermittently since moving to Milwaukee). All it said was that a place called the SOS Center needed volunteers to help with a painting project - it's in Milwaukee. Now - I had never painted before in my life, I didn't know what the SOS Center was about, or why I should care that it needed painting, but I was available the Saturday morning that they needed volunteers and lived only ten minutes away, so I thought I'd check it out. I learned a few things about painting, met some new people, and genuinely had a good time. As the morning went on, conversation turned to me and I was describing my experiences in South Korea to some men who are closely involved in the SOS center. Upon learning that I had experience teaching ESL students, everyone in the room got excited and eagerly told me the center was looking for an ESL teacher. In a flurry of activity, I quickly obtained names and numbers of board members and directors as well as small bits of questionably accurate information about what the job might be like. Within a week, my resume was submitted to the executive director, interviews and orientations commenced, and I was teaching adult GED classes in a computer lab in the basement. Turns out it was not an ESL teacher the center needed, but a GED instructor. It was the perfect fit!
I love working for my boss and she lets me know regularly how much she appreciates me. We brainstorm and dream about what we can do to improve the center and expand its programs. I have a coworker who also teaches GED classes with me; we make a perfect pair. He is the wise, compassionate, black minister and I am the young, energetic, logical optimist. Between the two of us, everyone who walks through our doors finds something to connect with. He is a published Doctor - I am a math nerd. He has experience - I have energy. We've got all our bases covered, and we love working together. I'm not teaching in a mainstream classroom, but, instead, I am working with the people for whom mainstream education has failed. I finally feel like I'm reaching the unreachable students.
In many ways, this job was the next perfect step in my life. I never saw it coming. The plan was, after student teaching, I would substitute teach, allowing math and high school requests to take precedence over other subbing requests in the district. However, on my last day of student teaching, I was sitting in my classroom with my cooperating teacher, grading 127 final exams, laughing and crying over our students. Halfway through the day a Learning Center teacher from down the hall knocked on our door. She came in, apologizing for distracting us while we were so busy, but we needed to talk. You see, one of the English teachers just found out she had cancer and would need a long-term sub. I'm not certified to teach English, but one of the learning center teachers is. So, the plan was to have the learning center teacher sub for English classes and I would sub in the learning center. Now, I'm not certified to teach alternative education (the learning center - in short - is a study hall with extra support . The learning center teachers help out with homework, organization, advocating for fair alternative instruction and assessment, and working closely with the various subject teachers to help ensure success for 'at-risk' students), but I would always be working with at least one other teacher in the center, and I knew many of the students already, as well as the rules and culture of the school. I started the next day. The following few weeks were a roller coaster ride getting to know and trying to help some of the most difficult, troubled, unique, challenged, or apathetic youth I have worked with. I love it! So, when the time came for the English teacher to joyously return to her job, healing quickly, I had no idea that my next job would be helping the same kind of students years after their high school experiences had concluded. I went from helping at-risk students graduate high school, to helping adults complete their GEDs. Many of the same things that caused my high school students to be labeled 'at-risk' are the same causes that kept my adult students from graduating years ago. I already had an idea of why completing a high school diploma was so difficult, and yet so important, for so many people, especially in the city.
So, right now, I find alternative education extremely compelling. I see the weakness and failures in our education system more acutely than I ever could from the bluffs of rural Iowa during my college career. I still have very few answers, and many of my own ideas are not well-defined; however, I finally feel like I am doing something about the education inequality in Milwaukee. I'm reaching students who have never been reached and remembering students who have long been forgotten. The non-traditional set-up of our program leaves room for the kind of one-on-one attention that not only allows me to assess and design individual curricular paths, but also allows me to listen to students' stories, struggles, complications, and experiences that influence, impede, or supplement their intellectual development.
I just started this job, but I'm already hooked. The only reservation that I have is that it's only part-time. There is a chance, if we can convince our benefactors to expand the grant that pays my wages, that I will be employed full-time come January 2012. But in the mean time, the decision remains: stay with the SOS center hoping to become employed full-time but willing to take the risks of staying part time for a while, or leave the center in August to take a 'real' teaching job with benefits and a salary. August is such a short time away, and I just got started. I feel like I would somehow be letting down my coworkers and students, leaving so early when I still have much to offer the center (also, teaching adult GED classes is soooooooooo much less stress than being a first-year classroom teacher at a public school right now).
So, these are the thoughts that weighed on my heart and mind as our small mission team made the nearly 20 hour cross country car ride from Milwaukee to New Orleans, a city with needs as acute and diverse as my hometown. Needs that can only be met through quiet determination and incredible hope and sacrifice. The stories I would hear in this city would bring me a new perspective on my life's work and mission.