As a senior at Stanford in 2010, I felt strongly that the fight for educational equity was the most important movement of our generation. After four years at what I still believe is the greatest place in the world, having every opportunity at my fingertips, I felt an intense obligation to ensure that every student – not just the ones born in affluent communities – had access to an excellent education. I joined Teach For America with this conviction, and every day that I work with my pre-K students, I know that I made the right choice.
I currently have the privilege of working with 40 amazing four-year-olds at the outset of their educational journey. For most of my students, this is their first experience in school. Their time in my classroom forms the foundation for their future success in school and beyond. If I’m able to help spark their curiosity, build their love of learning and develop the skills they’ll need to actively engage in school throughout their education, they’ll be starting out on a path to realize their full potential.
For my students, and so many others across this country, the additional challenges posed by poverty cause them to start their academic careers already behind their peers in wealthier communities. However, research shows that children who attend high-quality pre-K programs are more likely to achieve academically, earn more and avoid involvement with the criminal justice system later in life. While academics are obviously important, it’s not just about ABCs and shapes; pre-K gives students a chance to develop self-regulation abilities, conflict resolution aptitudes and critical thinking skills that will serve them for the rest of their lives. With the right support from families, community members and dedicated educators, we can give kids in low-income communities the chance to start out with equal footing in school, as well as skills and mindsets which will empower them to reach their full potentials.
The longer I stay in this line of work, the more reasons I have to believe it is worthwhile. A few weeks ago, Fabian’s mother called to tell me that it was his sixth birthday. I taught Fabian for two years during my Teach For America commitment. When he ran into my class for the first time (yes, ran – he rarely walked anywhere), he was three years old and had an individual special education plan for a range of social, behavioral and language delays. He couldn’t sit in a circle with other students to save his life, he frequently broke down into hysterics when he encountered a setback and most people couldn’t understand him when he spoke. It took new energy and creativity every day to figure out how I could help Fabian learn, and we had plenty of hard days. However, when it was time for him to leave me, he had learned to self-manage his boundless energy and he sought out opportunities to learn. Although it was hard for me to let him go, I knew he was ready for the next step. Not only is he functioning normally in a general education Kindergarten class, but he also earned straight As last trimester.
By helping students like Fabian learn in their own ways through exploration, play and academics, it is clear to me that young children are growing and learning every minute of every day. Research shows that more than 85 percent of the brain develops before the age of five – before students enter Kindergarten. Pre-K comes at a critical time for learning, giving teachers an especially meaningful chance to put students on the path to a lifetime of success in learning.
I know first-hand that dedicated teachers can significantly close the gap for our youngest students, and I believe that, in our lifetime, we can ensure that all students in this country have access to a great education.
I simply can’t walk away from this work. My commitment to educational equity will be lifelong, but the movement continues to need talented individuals who are committed to making a difference. As you think about what role you will play after graduation, I hope that you will consider joining me in the effort to ensure that we give all children, regardless of their family income, the kind of education that will allow them to reach their full potentials.
Aliy Bossert ’10 was a 2010 Teach For America corps member in the Las Vegas Valley, where she continues to teach today.