Students growing up in low-income communities, many of whom are African-American or Hispanic, face daunting challenges from the moment they are born. These students frequently aren’t given a sense of their potential to achieve at high levels. I can personally remember countless incidents of being labeled as less capable than others simply because of where I was born and the color of my skin. It’s clear to me now that I was never less capable. But even with support from both of my parents, I remember thinking I wasn’t good enough.
I joined Teach For America because I realized I had the opportunity to serve as an example of success for students coming from similar backgrounds as my own. It’s the type of example that is tangible, not one that students hear or read about but one they have the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with. It’s the type of example that I craved as a child in order to truly believe I was capable of the potential my parents said I had.
As a first-year teacher in the Houston Independent School District, I’m already beginning to understand how powerful this example can be for my first graders. One of my students, who I will call Natalie, recently approached me and said, “Ms. James, guess what? I want to be a teacher just like you when I grow up.” Natalie is one of 31 students I will have the opportunity to work with this year.
The daunting and exciting thing is that there are so many students like Natalie across our country — students who are simply waiting to be given the educational opportunities they deserve. Here in Houston, 77 percent of Caucasian 10th graders in HISD met grade-level requirements on state-administered exams, while only 41 percent of Hispanic students and 35 percent of African-American students met minimum grade-level standards on the same exams. There is a desperate need in low-income communities for more teachers who can serve as models of success in education and in life and who will do whatever it takes to make sure their students achieve at high levels.
Teach For America has given me the opportunity to help fight one of our nation’s greatest injustices. I will have the chance to impact students that face challenges similar to ones I encountered. As a Teach For America participant, I have the opportunity to inspire a passion for learning and a sense of self-esteem in each of my students. It’s by far the most difficult and rewarding challenge I have faced to date.
As University students, we are uniquely positioned to expand the academic potential and life prospects of students growing up in low-income communities. We know what it takes to succeed and we are committed to making sure others have the same higher education opportunities we received. I urge you to join me in working to give every student like Natalie the opportunity to someday attend the University of Michigan and lead her own classroom.