It is a truth universally acknowledged that any young person serving as a Lasallian Volunteer must be adaptable.
Over the course of your time as a Lasallian Volunteer, you learn that this experience is anything but cookie cutter. Regardless of when, where or in what capacity you serve, you will encounter a situation you are unfamiliar with, a student you can’t quite connect with or some other hurdle that you can’t quite seem to get over. This is where adaptability will be one of your greatest assets.
In the spring, I used my blog post to reflect on my trials and tribulations when it came to being available to my sixth grade social studies students. As the year has gone on, COVID-19 and the various ways educators have been asked to pivot and accommodate community needs continues to pose new challenges—not just to being available, but to being adaptable as well. I thought that after COVID, I could handle anything. If I could handle a complete change to the format and delivery of my lessons, if I could handle 2+ hour “speaker phone classes” trying to get students caught up in social studies, I had achieved adaptability.
In May, however, I was asked to switch subjects and grades—from sixth grade social studies to seventh grade English language arts (ELA).
As an adaptable Lasallian Volunteer, my immediate answer was “yes.” After all, I have been placed at my site to serve the needs of my school and my students. As weeks and months passed, though, doubt began to settle in. I hadn’t thought myself all that qualified as a first-year teacher, but at least the courses I had taken in college were firmly entrenched in the realm of social studies. Apart from one required writing course my first year at Saint Mary’s College of California, my last English class had been my junior year of high school. I have always been a prolific reader (did you catch the reference in the opening line?) but the last year has taught me that loving something and being able to teach it to others can often be two very different things.
Many of the concerns I had were self-centered. I haven’t been in anything resembling a true ELA course in six years. I don’t know the how to teach students to effectively read and write. I would feel more confident and comfortable teaching social studies. I would have an easier year if I was in a familiar subject. I don’t even know what a gerund is, nor can I diagram a sentence! In one particularly frantic conversation with Margaret Naughton, associate director of Lasallian Volunteers, this summer, though, I remember having a moment of clarity: by teaching seventh grade instead of sixth grade, I would be able to continue teaching the same group of students I had taught last year.
Once I spoke this thought out loud, I found that I was able to focus on the bigger picture. Just like the rest of us, my students’ whole world had been turned upside down in March. While most of them were about to return to the same physical school building that they had been in last year, our schedule is new, our hybrid/digital structures are new, and most of their teachers are new to them. This year, “Ms. Brophy’s class” isn’t focused on the process of domestication, the development of civilization and the rise of empires. However, “Ms. Brophy’s class” is an environment that is largely familiar, where they don’t have to learn how to be around a new adult. There are certain things that they that they can expect from me, such as “cringy” taste in music (played while waiting for live classes to start) and a lot of check in/feedback forms. I can’t speak for those of you reading this, but there are very few things that I know I can expect anymore. When I read student comments about how glad they are that they don’t have to meet “one more new teacher” or that they are excited to have another year with me, I imagine that is my students’ way of saying that they’re glad to have something familiar amidst so much uncertainty.
Teaching seventh grade ELA is challenging. To some extent it is true that I would have been more confident and comfortable teaching sixth grade social studies for another year, because I was familiar with the materials that I had created and the concepts that students struggle with. In addition to a new subject, the structure of our hybrid model means that I only have one seventh grader in my “pod” at school. This means that I get almost no immediate feedback that I can use to know how my assignments are landing with students. While this is certainly not a situation that is unique to me, it is one that I struggle with a lot. I work really hard to create lessons and assignments that are clear and efficient in guiding students through learning, but sometimes I come up short and only find out after the fact. I still don’t know what a gerund is, and I still can’t diagram a sentence!
The year is still young, and I have so much more to learn, but this I know to be true: adaptability is not a destination, but a constant practice. I will continue to encounter situations that force me to stretch myself to meet the needs of students. By choosing to stay focused on my students, though, I am constantly reaffirming the purpose of challenging myself to be adaptable.
Olivia Brophy is a second-year volunteer at San Miguel School in Washington, D.C., serving as the teacher for seventh grade ELA and high school prep, librarian and other duties as assigned. She is a 2019 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California with a degree in global studies and Spanish and minor in anthropology.