All You Can Control is How You React

Hello, my name is Caitlin Clark and I proudly serve as an AmeriCorps member on the Diplomas Now team at Shaw Middle School.  I am 23 years old, was born and raised in Yucaipa, California and graduated in 2010 from the University of Redlands.  I received my teaching credential the year after I graduated and worked with middle school students for the first time teaching 7th and 8th grade English.  While initially nervous to work with this particularly formidable age group, I fell in love with my students.  From what you might know about middle schoolers this may be surprising: they think they know everything and they’re not afraid to tell you how it is.  However, what I loved about this group is that they just needed to be challenged, motivated and inspired.

I want to be a teacher, and while I had some teaching experience under my belt, I didn’t feel that I was a great teacher quite yet.  I knew that all students are capable and I knew that “success” as a teacher was more than just having a good lesson plan.  But I also knew that in order to become the teacher I wanted to be, I needed to learn not only how to teach, but how to motivate students to learn and help them beat the odds against them.  I wanted to bring my best to the classroom and I knew that City Year was a program that would make me a better educator.

Let me tell you about one of my students, Jay.  Jay had quite a suspension record because of his inability to manage his anger and frustration.  By December he had been suspended over 30 times and was generally kicked out of class during at least one period of the day.  As you can imagine, being out of class 30-40 days of the first semester will put you a bit behind in your classes.  However, by talking with Jay, getting to know him, and creating a signal, he would let me know when he was feeling frustrated, and I would let the teacher know when he needed a quick break.  We would go outside, de-escalate and talk out the situation, he would tell me what he thought he needed to be successful when he went back into class, and I would remind him that all he could control were his reactions.  On the days we would have these conversations, Jay would only need to be out of class for a few minutes—time for a quick cool down and water break—and then he would refocus and be ready to get back to work.  During the second half of the school year—from January to June—Jay was only suspended once and he learned to communicate calmly with me rather than throw things, start fights, curse at his peers and teachers. One day, Jay observed another student getting angry and asked me if he could take him out in the hallway and have a quick conversation with him.  I told him that if he thought he could help the situation, he was welcome to give it a shot.  For supervision purposes, I went out in the hall with the boys, but kept my distance.  I overheard Jay telling the other student: “Don’t let it get to you, man.  All you can control is how you react to the problem.  When you feel like exploding, just find me.  I’ve got you.”  It was the most rewarding moment of my year to see Jay—a natural born leader—use his leadership in a positive way.

In addition to the stories my teammates and I have to share about our impact we also have the numbers to show our results so get ready:  last year in the 7th grade we had a 50% decrease in poor attendance, an 82% decrease in suspensions and a 100% decrease in the number of students failing English.  90% of the 7th grade students that my teammates and I worked with improved at least one grade level over the course of the year. I am extremely proud of the work that my team and I did to create this impact, but I knew that it was just the first step.

After my senior corps year, I plan to begin my teaching career, better prepared to serve in the classroom independently after two whole years of teacher and classroom observations, hours of experience working with low-performing students, relationship building with students and coworkers, and long work days.  I have no doubt that City Year has helped to provide me with invaluable experience that will give me a step up among first year educators.

Caitlin Clark is a senior corps member on the Walmart team serving at Shaw Middle School.


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