The two pieces of “advice” nearly every teacher I knew gave me before I flew to Chicago was around these two lines: “Your first year teaching is going to be the hardest year of your life,” and “Don’t let the students see you cry.” This was as hard to hear as you would think. Especially since many of them told me to stay warm and not freeze since I would be moving to Chicago from sunny California. Luckily, I’m not just teaching, I’m serving. I am serving as a teacher at San Miguel School in Chicago, Illinois, where I teach writing and literature to the sixth grade class.
I am blessed to be surrounded by a fantastic support system from my community as well as my service site. This support is helping me fulfil the Lasallian mission through my work, entering to learn and leaving to serve.
Part of what my teacher friends told me was correct. Teaching is hard work. The hardest part about it, in my opinion, is making sure you are teaching your students well because you help sculpt part of their future, and in middle school, they are most malleable.
One thing I’ve learned is to make sure you have energy. In 2015 my civics teacher, Mr. Leporini, said a line I will never forget, “Fake enthusiasm works, it’s called teaching.” As a teacher with seemingly endless energy, his quote came rapidly to my mind once I began working in my sixth grade classroom.
Every morning at 7:30 a.m. I get to San Miguel and after printing and lesson planning, we pray as a staff. After prayer, I start cranking up the energy. Prayer helps me focus before the students are led up to our classroom (which is on the fourth floor of St. Michael’s Church) by either myself or my co-teacher. Sometimes the students help, saying funny stuff like, “Yo, yo, yo, Mr. Walton” or giving me handshakes or telling a joke. Once we are upstairs we get all of our materials and pray once more with the students.
This helps all of us come together as we remember every day that, “we are in the Holy Presence of God” together. I think that is what makes my service site so special and why I find myself distinguishing my work as service as well as teaching. The students come together and want to be together. Though many of them share the same struggles with reading and being English Second Language learners, their common connections and comradery run much deeper.
My sixth graders, as well as all of the other students at San Miguel School want to be in this school. Though many of them answer jestingly that they wish they could buy “day off” passes with the tickets they’ve earned during class, they still show that they want to push forward and learn more about how the world works. One of my students, I’ll refer to him as C.R., asks questions constantly about how the intricate details of English grammar relate to his everyday life: “Why do I need to know what an antecedent is? Why do we have commas? When will I ever use the word ‘makeshift’?” Though some of them are harder to answer than others, C.R. reminds me that he wants to learn through these questions, showing me that he wants to take his education further than it already is, past the point of regurgitation of material. Though it would be easier for me to teach for a test, this student reminds me that my duty as a Lasallian Volunteer is not only to teach up to the point of the test, but push further for my students, serving them as an intellectual mentor in language arts.
My community has helped me see how my service has expanded and has kept me fueled and ready to serve. I have the pleasure of living in a community with a bunch of fantastic people doing fantastic things. My community members are always up for a good conversation, and we are very open about our needs. Jen has helped me immensely in classroom management, and I know Jen needs to go to bed by 8:00 p.m. so she can wake up at 4:00 a.m. for a workout (She’s a superhero, I don’t know how she does it.), and she has been key to helping me get into the flow of teaching as my co-teacher. Sam likes things to be organized, and always gives words of encouragement when I am doubting my ability to help certain students. Brother Mark needs his TV time to unwind by himself and is always a calm voice when asked about anything anxiety inducing. Alexis is reminding me to laugh by playing Frozen music, but needs her alone time. Sheyenne has helped me get a perspective of different teaching styles and reminds me of the power kindheartedness possesses whenever she is around anyone. I could not have ever seen how far my service stretched nor be able to serve as effectively as I do, without the support of my community.
This first year serving as a Lasallian Volunteer has turned work into a service for me. With my community and service site supporting me, I find myself growing and learning as I serve. Lasallian education with the focus of entering to learn and leaving to serve shows me an eternal truth: we are always learning, even when we are serving. I look forward to the rest of my service year and pray that I may continue to learn, continue to serve, and continue this Lasallian cycle.
Daniel Walton is a first-year volunteer serving at San Miguel School in Chicago, Illinois, where he serves as the sixth grade language arts teacher. He is a 2019 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, with a degree in English. He is also a 2015 graduate of Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, California.