Op-Ed: The Impact Individual Teachers Have on Students Should Not be Underestimated.

December 12, 2014

As I get ready to come home for the holidays, I’ve been thinking a lot about my first move away from New England. In 2012, I moved to Miami for a job with Teach For America, an organization that enlists recent college graduates and professionals to teach in high­need communities and become leaders in the movement for educational equity. I knew the move would immerse me in new experiences – a new job, a new city, a new stage of life.

As a born and bred New Hampshirite, the South Florida community that opened its arms to me offered an unfamiliar cultural context. My days of clomping through the snow in Ugg boots were replaced with learning bachata and falling in love with Jamaican patties. Settling into my new home, I became familiar with these cultural differences, along with a set of much less joyful realities. Every day, our country asks low­income people of color to go to extraordinary lengths to be successful. They are expected to overcome obstacles, chart uncharted territory, triumph over adversity, then do it all again. As I embraced the flavors of Miami, daily manifestations of this unjust truth stared me straight in the face.

I saw this play out most glaringly in our public education system – where children face radically different sets of opportunities depending on the color of their skin and the figure on their parents’ paychecks. At first, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that when I asked my students why they wanted to attend college, their response was most often, “To prove everyone wrong” or, “Because I don’t want to be just another statistic.” Then it started to sink in: those kids pay the high price of society’s low expectations every single day.

Many of the teachers I worked alongside at Miami Norland Senior High School had to fight these expectations themselves. Over cups of coffee in the faculty room, I learned that these incredible individuals faced a road paved with challenges as they set out to be successful.

Growing up, many of my fellow educators took two­hour bus rides or reported falsified home addresses to attend better schools. Many grew up in single­parent households where no one was around to help with homework. A few were homeless for portions of their secondary education.

Needless to say, people who overcome these kinds of obstacles should be celebrated and admired for their ability to surmount such odds. But as I consider my students who face so many of these same kinds of challenges, I worry. The prevailing notion seems to be that because it’s humanly possible to overcome extreme circumstances (as my colleagues demonstrated), low­income families and students of color should just figure out how to do it.

Stay in school, work hard, earn a four­year scholarship, be the first in your family or community to do it.

-Amy Flynn '12
Amy is currently working on an MBA in public and nonprofit management at Boston University