February 4, 2021
Finding my ‘why:' An AmeriCorps member’s mid-year reflection
When my AmeriCorps service term with Reading Partners began in August, I have to admit that I was mildly afraid of children.
My perception of elementary schoolers was still skewed by vivid memories of my time as a juggling coach at a circus-themed summer camp. Day after day, my group of seven-year-olds ran, shrieked, and attempted to use me as a jungle gym. My weeks were full of excitement, but they also included some tears as my small charges tried to pick up juggling.
My journey to Reading Partners
Given this experience, you may be wondering why I chose to serve at Reading Partners, a children’s literacy nonprofit, during my AmeriCorps term. My road to Reading Partners began in college, where I enrolled in a program focused on social impact and entrepreneurship. After completing my coursework and three internships at nonprofits, I attended a philosophy seminar that further fueled this interest in work that impacted others.
At first, these thoughts of impact and service hovered in the back of my mind. Like many upcoming graduates, I planned to start a corporate career immediately after my May 2020 graduation. But as the COVID-19 pandemic spread, rescinded job offers and hiring freezes mounted, and I became increasingly excited about the opportunity to shift my post-graduate plans to truly focus on service.
AmeriCorps seemed like a fantastic fit for me—a year of service would enable me to impact others while also learning how to incorporate service into my life long-term. As I researched AmeriCorps programs, I learned about Reading Partners Baltimore from a tutor who sang its praises. I was drawn to the nonprofit’s goal of supporting students as they learned to read and its focus on empowering communities in this work. I was particularly interested in Reading Partners’ distance tutoring coordinator role, which would allow me to use data to make decisions in the interest of student impact while interacting with a range of stakeholders.
It’s the kids
Come August, I was excited to begin my year of service. I was genuinely thrilled for the opportunity to help students achieve the freedom that comes from being able to read. But the cries of my former campers still echoed in my mind, especially after my AmeriCorps peers were asked to reflect on what motivated each of them to serve with AmeriCorps. Their common chorus of “the kids, it’s really the kids” and “bring it all back to the kids” surrounded me. It was clear that everyone was ecstatic to work so closely with children. Yet my skepticism remained—could my work with kids’ wholeheartedly fuel my desire to jump into each new day?
My first tutoring session
A month later, I prepared to deliver my first online tutoring session, the first time I would interact one-on-one with a student. My student entered the Zoom room, I said, “hi!”, he said “hi,” and then an awkward silence ensued. Thankfully, my program manager soon stepped in, chatting with the student about how he was doing and how excited he was to be a part of Reading Partners. A wave of gratitude washed over me as she asked the student questions. As I watched them interact, I learned in real-time that math, dragons, little sisters, and pets seemed to be safe topics that didn’t result in the outbursts I’d come to associate with kids this age.
I kept this interaction in mind as I met each of my students and continued to see them for weekly sessions. With each additional session, we moved further past our initial, shy introductions and towards real relationships. I learned that Corey’s chattiest self emerged when it was time to talk about dinosaurs. I learned that Lana knew more about penguins than I did. And I learned that Zion stayed engaged by bursting into an original song about the words in each lesson.
Connecting with students
A few weeks after that first tutoring session, one of my fourth-grade students arrived at her session a few minutes late. She announced, “I am SORRY, I am having a ROUGH day.” Her volunteer tutor smiled empathically and then quickly tried to start their lesson, hoping to take her student’s mind off her bad day. But I remembered what I saw weeks earlier with my manager, and stepped in.
“Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that!” I said. “Do you want to tell us anything about it?”
“Yes,” she proclaimed, “I do NOT like algebra.” After a brief discussion about math and a few chuckles together, it seemed that the student had calmed down and was eager to start her session with her tutor.
I realized then that during my first few tutoring sessions, I’d focused on playing it safe, keeping my interactions to ones that I knew wouldn’t provoke my students to derail the lesson. But along the way, I’d found a level of comfort and my focus had shifted to asking questions that would spark dialogue, reveal each student’s interests, and enable me to deliver more engaging lessons. By the time I logged on for this fourth grader’s session, we had a relationship—we knew each other well enough that even when the world felt chaotic to her, she wanted to work with me to enter a mindset that would enable her to have a productive session.
What motivates me
I’m now halfway through my service term at Reading Partners. Now, when people ask how my day is going, I tell them these stories. I tell them about the student who told me he was reading slowly so that our session could last longer. I tell them about Zion’s hilarious songs and about Kendall eagerly introducing her stuffed animal to Whoo the Owl, the character in the Reading Partners Connects lessons. Each day I get to see these students have fun as they realize that they enjoy reading and as they take charge of their own learning. This is what fuels my desire to jump into each new day.
Now, when someone asks what motivates me, I don’t think back to the screaming campers, or even my hesitation during my first tutoring session. Now, I join my fellow AmeriCorps members in saying, “the kids, it’s really the kids.”