Written In The Stars
by Clarissa Rudolph-Hastings
A small child sits at home near a window, looking at the night’s countless stars in the sky, believing that besides existing in a quaint little town, there is a huge universe. Children have such subtle knowledge of all subject matters, and their imagination as elementary school students is limitless. As we grow up, we remove these small shoes, complaining that they are too tight, impractical, and useless, and we trade them in for roomier and more comfortable foot wear that seems to take us away from our original ideas. We forget all the opportunities that we once thought were possibilities. A void, which becomes hopelessness, is part of our reality as we mature, and we leave our dreams when we depart from our childhood. We abandon our innocence, and we replace our creativity with despair. Our eyes are no longer focused on the stars of opportunity but instead, we see the ground of failure.
As an elementary school counselor, I know that the one thing the educational system cannot take away from a child is their heart. It can crush their dreams, destroy individuality, make them feel misunderstood, and label them. However, the power of their inner spirits will not forsake them.
I taught high school math and science for 16 years. In those years, I saw the eyes of uncertainty. I’ve mostly worked at Title I Schools, which are defined as institutions with a high number or high percentage of students from low-income families. In other words, a family of four, which includes a two-parent household and two children, have a threshold of $45,622, but many low-income households are much lower than this. The vast majority of people who live in these households are merely trying to survive. It is unlikely they will ever go to college, and many may drop out of high school.
Most students, in fact, don’t even go to college while others never finish a four-year degree. According to a February 23, 2012, Census Report, 30% of Americans have a Bachelor’s degree, a first in the nation’s history. Yet, it is still a small percentage compared to the 70% who don’t have a degree. Of the 30% who do complete their Bachelor’s degrees, about 8% hold a Master’s degree and only 3% are holders of a doctorate degree. Worldwide, according to a May 25, 2011, Huffpost report, only 6.7% are degree holders, as compared to 30% of Americans.
Not surprisingly, as I sat in one of my Master level classes, my professor proclaimed that statistically, I was not supposed to be there. I am a first-generation female Hispanic college graduate from a small town with an advanced degree. Since my parents didn’t finish college, the statistics of me even going to college were next to none. Not only did I complete an advanced degree, I have two sisters who have advanced degrees and a brother who has a degree from the University of California-Berkley. These statistics are remarkable considering that the odds were against us.
Further, my world view, also known as “locus of control,” which I learned in graduate school, has been different than many other educated people because the way I perceive the world has shifted over the years. According to American psychologist Julian Rotter, each person has a “locus of control,” how they perceive the events in their lives. Without going into detail, generally speaking, and according to this theory, there is an external and internal orientation of belief that we can either allow the world to remain as we perceive it or that we, according to Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi, can “…be the change you wish to see in the world.” An external belief system is one where individuals believe their behavior is affected by their external circumstances while those who have an internal belief system believe their decisions are guided by their own efforts. Research shows that these belief systems are directly related to socio-economic advantages, academic and career achievements, as well as mental health issues.
I always wanted to be a teacher. In fact, when my younger siblings were in pre-school and during their elementary years, I made sure they took summer school in my “classroom,” which happened to be the laundry room. I taught them to read, write and do arithmetic. I became my sister’s math tutor in college and my brother’s “debate team” when he attended Berkeley.
I remember the first time I walked into a classroom to teach science at a private school. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Watching the high school students enter my classroom, in my mind, I was like a coach for a National Football League Team or the director of a famous Orchestra. This brought me back to my childhood dreams, and I was determined to make a difference. I taught them Physical Science, Biology, Chemistry and Physics. In the spring, I took the Physics students on a field trip to Kirtland Airforce base to launch the rocket that they had worked hard to create in the classroom. They had learned all of Newton’s laws of motion, practiced how to solve countless equations, were tested and retested, and soon they would witness these laws in action. Pictures were taken by the media from the base, and the students were delighted to see their launch in the military paper. They received some of the highest scores in science on the American College Test, also known as the ACT.
When I started teaching at a public middle school, I saw that the classroom sizes were quite large in comparison to the private school, and I learned a valuable lesson during my first year. The lesson was referred to in public education as “classroom management.” Even though I still saw myself as a coach and a director, I had a new title, “manager!” I took this title seriously. Otherwise, my classroom would be in disarray. I developed lesson plans, a curriculum of many things to accomplish over the school year, and a contract between the students, the parents and myself. Students not only understood the rules, they would be expected to follow them or they would have to take accountability for the consequences. The guidelines were quite simple, as students were expected to do their work, and the consequences were laid out. If they deviated from what they had to accomplish, parents would be notified and they would fail the class.
My first experience in public school education was at a Title I school. One of my many jobs was to teach a “communications class.” One day, I received an email from the University of New Mexico, to inform me of an upcoming state-wide competition during “Grandparent’s Day.” Students were to write an essay about their grandparents. As a team effort, the students and I came up with interview questions for their grandparents. From these discussions with their grandparents, we would write essays, edit them, and re-edit them again. After entering this contest, we soon found out that not only did we have the best essays in the state, one of our students had won first place in the contest. They wrote what they knew, and the essays were precious. In addition, the students learned things about their grandparents they had never known. This became their own personal history lesson.
I later moved to a public high school. Once again, a Title I school with a high percentage of Native American and Hispanic students. I took it upon myself to have the students enter the Science Exposition at a local high school. It was at this point in my life where I learned about the “politics” in our public schools. I hadn’t noticed that I was the only Hispanic science teacher at this predominantly Hispanic and Native American school district until someone mentioned it to me. When I shared my incredible idea, as a coach, director, and manager of my classroom, of having students compete in a Science Exposition, it was met with resistance. Now I had a new title to my name, an advocate. The way I advocated for the students meant that they had to buy into the idea of working hard at this competition, which meant after school hours, research skills, experimentation, editing and re-editing their data—nothing that ordering pizzas and buying Gatorade couldn’t solve. It worked. Students came out winning local, regional, state, national, and even one presented her science project internationally. Again, the students received much media recognition. This had never happened before I taught there and it hasn’t happened since I left.
Finally, moving to the largest school district in the state of New Mexico, I once again was offered a job at a Title I school. Instead of teaching science, however, I became a teacher of mathematics. As before, I presented students opportunities, from nominating them as “Selfless Seniors” to creating curriculum that would help them pass the math test to join the military or get into a community college. Several students I nominated won the title of “Selfless Senior,” including a homeless student who had overcome great odds. Additionally, another student, after doing a project in Pre-Calculus, realized he could attend an Ivy League college. This year, he will be graduating from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Unfortunately, as many of the accomplishments my students have received, I have faced just as many challenges as an educator, but like the coach that I am, I live by the motto “no pain, no gain.” As the director, I am sure that “practice makes perfect.” In my managerial style, I know if I treat students like they make a difference, they will. Finally, setting an example of self-advocacy empowers students to advocate for themselves. It is important to model the behaviors we wish to see in the world because even as adults, as we look out the window at night, there is still a huge universe with immeasurable stars and unlimited chances against all odds, which must be taken to reach incredible heights! Truth be told, when we step into adult shoes, our spirits must never be broken. We must move forward, running the race of perseverance, to the finish line, together with many of our students who are flying like eagles because we gave them wings!
Clarissa Rudolph-Hastings, the author of Amazon Best Seller, ‘The Healing Basket,’ believes that literacy is “writing about what we know.” Clarissa understands grief, having lost her parents tragically and “too soon” when she was yet a young mother. As a teacher, she has successfully met her students where they are in the educational process and has helped mold them into scholars. Her philosophy is that she is neither above her students nor are they above her. Students and teachers alike should strive to learn from one another in this journey called life. Though her job is to teach them the subject matter well, she also takes into account that she must learn from them so that she can be a better teacher year after year. Clarissa loves singing, reading, and writing. She can be found at the gym, hanging out with friends, or spending quality time with her family. She has been married for 30 years and has five beautiful daughters and two sons-in-laws who have captured two of her daughter’s hearts.