By Rosemary Miner
Halfway through my second month as an emergency certified science teacher at Nowell Leadership Academy, Executive Director Toby Shepherd asked me if I would be interested in keeping a journal to documented the experience. Overwhelmed with everything I had to learn just to teach the next day and all the things I didn’t know about teaching, I opted out.
That decision ranks among the biggest professional mistakes of my life.
With June closing in, I would love to be able to reread my own words and reflect back on this incredible year to remember how I felt and thought about each day as it whizzed by. The best adjective I can come up with at this juncture to document the year is hungry. Yes, I was always ravenous after a long day on my feet surrounded by chemistry experiments, DNA models, ecosystem food webs, and teenagers! More so, my great experiment into full time teaching has left me hungry for more−more progress on reaching goals, more time with the kids I now call my own, more time with colleagues, mentors, and coaches that inspire, calm, and share as graciously and gracefully as one could possibly imagine, and more time to study the craft of teaching, a creative art-form that requires patience, care, knowledge, heart, stamina, and imagination.
I have never cared about anything more, except my own family, and I have never felt as fulfilled or crushed by the weight of a profession, including my time spent as a US Army Flight Surgeon. Army training pales in comparison to facing teenagers everyday and trying to convince them that the chemical formula of photosynthesis is vital to their lives or standing before them as they correct your DNA transcription mistake amidst hoots and hollers and high fives. Yes, they test you, they challenge you, they make you laugh, and they make you cry. They, the students, make you a teacher, and their future is now my chief concern. Closing achievement gaps, facing issues of race and justice, making schools safer, and shutting down the school to prison pipeline are not theoretical issues for me any longer. Stepping over the threshold into Nowell, you feel a sense of urgency. Now is the time. Today is the day.
There are moments from this year I will never relinquish from my memory. I have witnessed my students finding their voices at the 2017 Global Economic Symposium held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. Undaunted by multi-state competition where their opponents were more practiced and experienced, Nowell students took home the first prize trophy. I cannot say I was surprised by the result as I had witnessed countless hours of research and preparation and saw their desire to win once they got to the awe-inspiring venue and stood before the trophy display.
Months later these same students would engage in a fierce classroom-wide competition to find the molar mass of various chemical compounds, shouting across the room and frantically calculating values amidst awesome displays of teamwork and determination. My students have shown me that they can compete and that they have valuable contributions to make. I have seen them grow in confidence right before my eyes as they built rockets, including a replica of the Saturn V, and I have watched them create DNA models to stand over 5 feet tall from their own designs of PVC pipe, wood, styrofoam, and plastic tubing.
But, there have been days in which I have felt defeated, ineffective, and overcome with fear. Our students face obstacles most people only read about, and their presence inside this building already defies the odds. The gaps they possess are real, but so is their potential. I want them to have big dreams, and I also want those dreams to be their own. However, bringing those big dreams within reach requires enormous supports to overcome issues of childcare, transportation, and the long-term effects of time missed from school. It is often a complex and complicated balance that demands effort, resources, and the ability to brainstorm novel solutions.
Most days this year it was all I could do to keep one lesson ahead as many of my students blazed through the material, eager to see what happens when hydrochloric acid is added to magnesium ribbon or how rain forest depletion will affect human populations and global climate or to understand why hemophilia is more common in males. Their growth as human beings and students is what I think about most now, and there is much work to be done. It can feel like a daunting task at times. Yet, I believe there is also room for celebration.
As Nowell strives to educate and prepare Rhode Island’s most under-served students, I know there is much to be gained from examining the ways in which we manage to do what so many schools do not—hang on to our students and help them create a future that is both personalized and worthy of them.
Rosemary Miner is a mom and former Army Flight Surgeon. She is in her first year of teaching science at Nowell Academy, a Rhode Island school that serves pregnant and parenting young adults as well as students who have not had success in a traditional learning environment.