As I write my personal statements for medical school applications, I inevitably reflected on my teaching experience from the past year. I thought back to the reasons I first set out to teach science on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico through Teach for America. I ambitiously set goals to empower students to make better decisions for their own health. I wanted them to develop the literacy and communication skills to effectively convey their beliefs and justify them using scientific evidence. I set out to connect science to my students’ lives so they may be interested enough to one day pursue careers in science.
My dream of being a transformational teacher was sorely crushed with reality. I was forewarned my students were below-grade level for reading and math, but never did I imagine my first lab would fall through because my high school students had little experience measuring with a ruler. Where I wanted to connect lipid structure with atherosclerosis, my students focused on the location of their stomach. Where I planned to explore diffusion in capillaries, my students struggled to differentiate between arteries and veins. Despite how terribly the education system has failed my students, there were many firsts in my classroom that gives me hope. We excitedly examined nutritional labels on their Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bags and distinguished between saturated and unsaturated fats. In awe, we read articles about uranium mining in Navajo reservation and the dangers associated with radiation exposure to connect the human experience with the cellular basis of unregulated cell growth in cancer. We graphed hormones of the menstrual cycle to understand its regulation and purpose. We presented skits to share information on asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and more.
A proverb traced back to Igbo and Yoruba origin states, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” I constantly question what it would take for my students to be college-ready critical thinkers and community leaders by the time they graduate from high school. I was invited to the graduation reception for my school’s valedictorian. Friends and relatives were invited to speak and offer words of wisdom as she prepared for college in the fall. It was evident that she had a strong family structure that emphasized pillars of integrity, love, and education rooted in both Navajo and Mexican-American backgrounds. Cheerful banter was tossed around as both her father and mother’s sides reminded her to never forget the culture and traditions she came from. For me as her teacher, it reinforced how necessary it was to pair a support system outside of class with quality lessons within the school day to prepare an adolescent for adulthood.
Many times this year, I felt like a one-woman island struggling to get my students what they needed in order to reach their dreams. As I conclude my first year of teaching, I have come to terms with the idea that no matter how perfect my lessons could be within science class, it would not be sufficient to transform a child’s life. School was only one piece of the puzzle. Learning of our valedictorian’s support structure and exposure to experiences off the Reservation reinforced this notion. The one-on-one conversations during lunch or the field trips or the opportunities in class to self-reflect all helped my students grow. For the upcoming school year, I intend to dedicate more time and effort toward these bonding opportunities outside the classroom.
While writing my medical school application, I looked back on the annual report from Chirag (Central Himalayan Rural Action Group) and refreshed my memory on all the services Chirag provided for its communities. They emphasized community relations with villagers. I, too, needed to increase my understanding of residents of Pueblo Pintado, New Mexico in order to become a more effective teacher and role model for my students. Chirag developed programs to assist the Indian national government in following through with policies that promised rural villagers better health, education, and livelihoods. In preparing for next school year, I want to learn more about the many resources and programs thriving in the area that support my students and their families. So far, these included the FACE program that supports parents in raising their toddlers or the Pueblo Pintado Volunteer Fire Department, the first responders to almost any emergency. Working with the surrounding Chapter Houses, the smallest unit of government on Navajo Nation, could help reinforce their efforts toward community development. If the high school could integrate the goals from the community and other programs, then we could build on each other’s successes and develop a network for students to access the numerous experiences that will allow them to become strong community leaders.