Reflection : Serving at Newtown

Today’s blogger is Heather Larkin, a corps member on the Microsoft Team at Newtown High School. 


 It’s hard to believe that two months ago, we entered BTA for the first time, excited but incredibly naïve to the journey we were about to embark upon in our Corps year.  We spent weeks of BTA chatting excitedly with one another in the City Year office, posing for the token headshots, and acquainting ourselves with the quirky nuances of City Year culture. With each passing session, hopes for the upcoming year soared as the flame of idealism burned brighter inside each of us. Needless to say, we were more than ready to enter our respective schools on September 9th. The countdown to our students’ arrival at Newtown High School went from weeks to days as we eagerly anticipated the official start of our City Year experience.

As we stood outside of Newtown on the first morning of school, apprehension peaked. Would the students like us? Would they be receptive to our morning greeting? What interest would they show in afterschool activities? Would communication barriers impede upon relationship building? And the overarching question: Would the theoretical situations presented in BTA mirror those of the actual high school environment?

Finally the students arrived. They stared at us with the expected confused expressions and raised eyebrows, confirming our suspicion that they had no idea what to expect from us.  The rest of the day followed a similar pattern as we began observing students’ English-Language Arts, math, science and social studies classes. At Newtown, tenth grade students are organized into five “Small Learning Communities” based on student interest: Engineering, Forensics, International, Business, and Arts & Media. Ninth grade students are grouped into the Ninth Grade Success Academy. For the first few weeks of school, we had the opportunity to shadow teachers in different SLC courses, which gave us a better understanding of the dynamics of the classroom environment and the Newtown community.

While our enthusiastic “good morning!” may have earned us few reciprocated greetings those first few days, the students warmed up to us over the next few weeks. When we received our permanent class placements, we immediately began building relationships with students. Gradually, the bewildered stares we received the first day of our morning welcome were replaced by excited “Hi Mister!” and “Hi Miss!” greetings.  “Fist-pump Fridays” became a student favorite with students enthusiastically “fist-pounding” corps members as they entered school. Nothing is more exciting than hearing a student call out, “Miss! Can you help me please?” in social studies class or a student exclaim, “Oh! That’s how you solve for x!” in a geometry tutoring session. My team members felt a vicarious sense of pride when we watched our fellow team member assist parents by communicating entirely in Spanish on Parent Night, and this sentiment reverberates every day in our afterschool program when students experience an “Aha!” moment.

Perhaps the most rewarding times are prep periods spent in the City Year room, where students come to receive extra help with schoolwork or simply to tell us more about themselves. BTA suggested that many of the strongest student-mentor relationships are those that begin outside of the classroom environment, when the social stressors of class and the high school environment momentarily dissipate.  At Newtown, this statement resonates all too well; the increasing popularity of our afterschool program reflects the strong relationships our team members are building with students throughout the school day, both inside and outside of the classroom.

My first month of service is complete and I’ll admit: work in the high school environment is nowhere near as black-and-white as I originally thought. All previous experience working with high school students and every preconceived notion that BTA instilled in me pertaining to the high school mindset seemed to go out the door the minute I stepped into Newtown. The fluidity of the high school mindset truly parallels my own; every day, I learn new lessons in empathy, compassion, patience and humility from my students. Every day, I abandon my fixed ways of operating in favor of more versatile approaches. Every day, I appreciate the legacy of the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 City Year corps, as the strong start to our Corps year wouldn’t have been possible without the powerful, foundational relationships corps members formed with students last year. While these revelations may have surprised me, they truly embody the reasons why I joined City Year in the first place. “You really wake up at 4:30 to come here every day, Miss? That’s crazy! Why would you ever do that when you know you’ve already been to graduate school? That’s legit!” my students inquired the first week of school. “Because I want you to care as much about school and your future as I do. Is that a ‘legit’ answer?” I have yet to meet a student who tells me it isn’t.