August 21, 2014

First, However, in Conclusion

Breakthrough teachers pose after getting pied by students

Breakthrough teachers after getting pied by students

Last week marked the end of another hectic summer teaching for the Breakthrough Collaborative. Less than two days afterward, I was making the familiar trek up along the Delaware River toward Lafayette to help out with Orientation Week and to begin my final year of college. As you can imagine, I haven’t had much time to process the whirlwind of a week I’ve just had, but as I settle back into the school routine my mind keeps returning to these words: “first,: “however,” and “in conclusion.”

These are transition words, picked from a list used to guide my students as they learned how to write analytical essays. “Transitions in expository writing are words or phrases that writers use to introduce key ideas, signal a change, and tie ideas together. Transitions help writers organize their ideas and information, and help readers to understand what they are reading.”  I’ve given this speech countless times, designed games to illustrate the role transitions play in an essay, and instructed my students to circle every transition used in their own writing in order to highlight their importance.

You may call it overkill—my students certainly did—but I am a firm believer in the power of transitions. They only contribute a few words to each paragraph, but even in a sea of monumental and magnificent ideas a writer must take a small moment to pause and reflect. I just completed two of the most difficult and meaningful summers of my life and am about to embark on the final year of my most significant achievement so far. In the midst of all this, I neglected the one thing I had just spent six weeks hammering into the brains of twenty six unsuspecting teenagers: transitions. Before classes begin and the summer really ends, I figured I should take a few minutes to have a dose of my own medicine.

First, I’d like to recognize the challenges—and this summer has had its fair share. The Breakthrough staff tried in vain to boost morale despite budget cuts and an environment that undermined our students’ potential. I saw two of my brightest students be dismissed from the program because they made the poor choice to skip school one morning. I spent eight hours in New York traffic on a school bus filled with 50 well-hydrated kids on the way back from a field trip to Yale. At the end of the summer, I watched my students head toward an uncertain future in a world that actively works to stifle their success; I was forced to find peace in my own failure as a teacher, mentor, and leader.

However, I’d also like to acknowledge the blessings this summer. I taught the same students over the past two years at Breakthrough, following them from the eighth grade to the ninth grade. As a result, I was able to see my kids grow and develop more than I ever thought possible in such a short time period. Reading their journals brought moments of incredible joy and deep thought. I finally completed a lesson plan on time and, by some miracle, managed to survive the summer without one drop of coffee.

In conclusion, I am incredibly thankful for everything that Breakthrough has given me, both good and bad. Two years ago, I would have laughed out loud at anybody with the audacity to suggest teaching as a possible career choice. Today, after two summers of the maddening, sleep-deprived, emotionally exhausting delirium that we call a teacher residency, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

Classes begin on Monday, and I can’t help but feel a bit awkward as I make the transition from leading a classroom to being a student in one. But my Breakthrough experience has inspired me to work harder, to learn more, and to never stop getting better. I’m looking forward to the challenges and blessings my senior year has to offer, as well as those little pockets of peace and reflection along the way.

posted in Susanna Kim

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