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Find Your Road

This may surprise you, but the most important and influential teaching assignment I’ve ever had was at The Road Home, a homeless shelter in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Here’s why: We not only taught students, we nurtured them. We cared for them and ensured they were safe, fed, clothed, and had the medical attention they needed. If you think this must be the work of a nurse, social worker, counselor, or even a first responder—not a teacher—guess again. As future educators, you will don these hats and more. Sometimes this is what it takes to do our jobs and serve our students. That’s because today’s public schools—whether rural, suburban, or urban—will include a new majority of students who are Black and brown, non-native English speakers, homeless, and come to us from low-income families.

I’m grateful for The Road Home. Working there opened my eyes to the needs of students like the ones who you will teach, and to the whole family who need access to health care, good nutrition, and community services. For many students, poverty, hunger, and homelessness have pushed them to the margins. I think of the 16 million children in the U.S. who struggle daily with hunger. It’s no secret that an empty stomach can be a distraction—especially to learning.

I challenge you to find opportunities on your campuses and in your communities, to seek teaching internships and residency programs, and to enroll in courses at your college that will similarly prepare, expose, and equip you to work with diverse and low-income students and the many challenges that they face, often before they reach school on any given day. Although my work at times was daunting because student needs were great, The Road Home experience has stayed with me. As special as the students I met there were to me, I know that all across the country, there are millions more like them today. Many of these students live precariously, not knowing when they will eat their next meal, and at the same time, they count on the consistent presence of excellent teachers who are sensitive to their needs. I want that teacher in their lives to be you.

In America, we believe that every child should have a chance to succeed—and if given that chance—can succeed. It’s an extraordinary idea, but sadly it seems to be slipping away from us. Today, it’s getting harder than ever for a student from a poor family—and doubly difficult for a student of color from a poor family—to land a more-than-minimum wage job after high school or to earn a college degree.

When confronting today’s growing economic and racial inequality, I always see the faces of first graders coming into school on their first day—their eyes bright with excitement, possibility, and hope. Then, I think, we as a society can do better. We have to do better.

Everywhere I go I hear educators refer to their students as “our kids.” Even as Student Program members, you can start right now to build on our deep commitment to students. And as you do, strive to be active, engaged, and prepared champions for our students, schools, and equity in education. It’s your turn to build the future.

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