I have always had a profound love for children. Throughout high school and college, I worked with highly resilient and extraordinary children in multiple capacities – as a program coordinator in an orphanage, as a volunteer in an HIV-positive mercy center and as a research assistant for a national study on foster youth support. At UC Davis, I studied human development and psychology, eager to learn all I could about the way kids’ minds work and develop so I could effectively tap into their potential.
When I was getting ready to graduate, my next step was a no-brainer. I applied to Teach For America, wanting to continue working directly with youth and ensure the education system that had allowed me to find and follow my passions did the same for the next generation.
When I moved to Colorado and began teaching special education, I found myself in a classroom full of the most incredible students. Their funny and profound kid-perspectives on life inspired me. Their curiosity about the world and excitement to learn new things energized me and challenged me to take a deep look at my own identity. They pushed and motivated me with a desire to excel for them.
My kids did not look the way society has told us successful people look. They were low-income students of color with various learning disabilities. Because of how they were born, many people made assumptions about how far they could go and how much they could accomplish, but I refused to believe that their destinies were predetermined. Instead, I believed deeply in their potential, and that helped them believe in it too.
Watching my kids do more than what they thought they were capable of fulfilled me like nothing else. There is no feeling as gratifying as having a student with cognitive delays (who was told he’d never be able to read) run up to you after finishing his first chapter book. I can’t describe what it’s like to watch two students sit down and work through a conflict independently. To be honest, when I started this work I don’t think I quite realized the way I’d feel when I saw a student prone to emotional tantrums calm himself down, look to his classmates for support and bring his attention back to learning.
The truth is, where our students come from, how they identify and how they learn are incredibly important. But none of that should dictate where and how far they can go in life. Every child deserves to be valued for what makes them unique and to have those qualities leveraged to help them find success, however they define it. Maybe they want to become the next president of the United States or maybe they want to finish high school and get a vocational education so they can support their family. Whatever their ultimate goal is, every child deserves the same opportunities to excel. As educated adults, we have countless opportunities at our fingertips – including the ability to create these opportunities for others. Whether through Teach For America or another great pathway to our highest-need schools, it’s one I hope those of you passionate about kids, education and equity will take.
Dominique Chao is a 2012 alum of UC Davis and Teach For America-Colorado.
Graphic by Jennifer Wu.