In honor of AmeriCorps Week, I’m interviewing people who are current or former AmeriCorps members, to talk with them about their service, and its impact on their communities and their careers. This interview is with my husband Doug. We met in 2000, during his second AmeriCorps year with Notre Dame AmeriCorps.
Where did you serve?
From 1999-2000 I served at Heberle Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio, and from 2000-01, I served at Fair Oaks Elementary School in Redwood City, California.
What do you do now?
I teach fourth grade at an elementary school where most kids are from low-income, limited-English families. This is my fifth year at my school.
You studied fine arts and painting as an undergrad, but you started AmeriCorps several years after graduating college. What were you doing for a living before you joined AmeriCorps?
I crafted stained glass for one company, and also worked as a framer at an art gallery. I volunteered as a Big Brother to a nine year old.
Why did you join AmeriCorps? What did you hope to accomplish?
I wanted to learn more about the city I lived in, and to gain experience in the education field. I thought of AmeriCorps as a way to volunteer full-time in a low-income school, and also get paid a basic stipend.
What did you do during your two terms of service?
Both years, I read with kids ages 8 to 11, and helped them with their writing. I also helped organize and run after-school and summer-school activities and programs, all based on increasing their literacy.
In Redwood City I also got a chance to support adults in the immigrant community — people who needed help filling out paperwork and understanding instructions. We also set up a program to teach high schoolers how to tutor younger kids. The high schoolers were considered “at-risk” (our site director Sr. Jeanette called them “at-promise”) but we just saw lots of high school kids who really wanted to help out.
How many other AmeriCorps members served at your schools with you?
About three to six, at both schools.
What impact did the AmeriCorps members have on the kids at the schools?
They brought hope and happiness. As we all know, teachers can be disgruntled and overworked — many classrooms have 30 or more kids that teachers have to focus on. It’s hard to always give each individual kid the time and attention they need. The AmeriCorps members were points of light in the lives of the kids. This is true for the AmeriCorps workers at my current school as well.
I can’t imagine what our schools would be like without the help and energy of the AmeriCorps members. They come into the school every day without a sense of the politics behind the scenes at the school, without concerns about job security and salary issues. It’s so nice for the kids to have a person to come in and work individually with them. When you’re in AmeriCorps, you’re not the teacher, you’re more like a friend, a mature friend.
At some places like Fair Oaks Elementary, there was such a tradition of AmeriCorps. If the members weren’t there, it would be like the spirit dropped out of the school.
What was the greatest challenge?
The hardest part were the down times at the beginning of the school year, before the kids started back. Sometimes if felt like there wasn’t enough to do.
You’ve said before that without AmeriCorps you would have had a harder time succeeding in the practice-teaching components of your Masters degree program. How else has AmeriCorps helped you?
After my second term, I felt more sure of myself, like I could do anything. I wasn’t as shy. I felt more confident talking in front of people, calling my students’ parents and other people on the phone.
I also felt more confident in front of the classroom during my first year of teaching. I had seen the inside of so many different classrooms. I had observed so many teachers at work. That gave me a lot of ideas about how I wanted to teach.
I also use my experiences working one-on-one with the kids now. How I speak with them individually, or working with kids in small groups. It comes really naturally because I did so much of that during my AmeriCorps years.
In AmeriCorps I got to use Spanish which I had studied in high school. That has helped me a lot in my current work because I can communicate with staff and parents who are limited with their English language.