In high school, I wasn’t exactly what you might call an academic. It’s not that I didn’t do well in school, but I didn’t particularly enjoy school. Aside from a few classes in which I had teachers who managed to keep me constantly engaged, I spent most of my class time thinking about sleep or my social life: anything other than that day’s lesson.
If you would have asked me four years ago where I was headed after graduation, I probably would have never imagined that I’d end up being a school teacher. The change came during my junior year, when I took Education 100: Introduction to Schools. Suddenly, I started to think that maybe teaching was exactly what I needed to be doing.
Before Introduction to Schools, my understanding of education primarily reflected my own personal experiences and those I’d come to understand through discussions with friends. All of us faced challenges: boring classes, endless homework, subject matter that felt so far removed from our day-to-day realities, the struggle to find purpose and passion. But in this class, I frequently faced the fact that these challenges, real as they were, paled in comparison to those faced by countless young people in this country who attend schools that are simply not set up for success.
I began to ask myself, if I had such a hard time finding meaning in my education, how much more difficult must it be for low-income students? How much more challenging must it be for them to focus on their education when they have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or how they’re going to support their families? And if it all becomes too much and they don’t make it to college or even high school graduation, then what? How much more difficult will it become for them to break the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families?
All of these questions led me to Teach for America and the career I’ll begin in education this fall. So much about it makes me anxious. Will I be good enough for my kids? Will I feel at home at my new city? But I’m sustained by what I know. Education isn’t serving all kids in this country. We’ve got to change this — and fast.
Nothing about this will be easy. That’s because the problems in our schools didn’t start there; they reflect deep, systemic, overlapping injustice across race, class and geography. A family who can’t access health services struggles to keep both parents employed. Those working multiple jobs need after school care, but don’t live in communities with the resources to provide it. Each inequity makes the next one worse.
By choosing to teach, I have chosen to disrupt this cycle. During my time as an undergrad, I’ve served as a volunteer at North Davis Elementary School and as a mentor at West Sacramento Early College Preparatory School. My time with these remarkable young people was a sharp contrast to the bubble of life on campus. Every week I worked on math and English with small groups of kids, many of whom were performing below their grade-level. Despite all the challenges these students face both inside and outside of the classroom, they’re some of the brightest, boldest minds I’ve met.
When we come together to help kids change the way they think about their own abilities and futures, we create classrooms full of students who are dreaming big. When we equip them with the skills and tools to thrive in and out of the classroom, we cultivate boundless potential — the future scientists, politicians, writers, artists, doctors and attorneys who shape the world we are all going to share. It won’t happen overnight. It will take a sustained, thoughtful effort. I want to be a part of it. I want students to care about their education and to connect their schooling to their goals.
I don’t know exactly where this next step will take me. If I love teaching as much as I think I might, I’ll keep at it. Wherever I go, I’ll empower my students to break the current cycle and strive to become part of a better one.
I can’t wait for school to start.
Brandon Lam is a current senior studying political science and economics. He is also a Teach for America campus campaign coordinator.