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West Philadelphia High School, where guest columnist Ania Alberski mentored high school students. Credit: Benjamin McAvoy-Bickford

I see a light in each of you. I hope you know that.

I took a leap to become your teacher; after four years as an undergrad at Penn, I thought I would be ready to instruct middle schoolers. I declared a major in English very early on, but I grew a passion for serving students and schools upon joining an after-school outreach program on campus, GEAR UP. I found it more gratifying to spend several hours per week mentoring in the halls of West Philadelphia High School than to talk in small discussion groups about 18th-century British literature. Everything I thought I knew about myself was slowly unraveling. 

Penn doesn’t offer an education major to undergraduate students, but there are plentiful opportunities to take classes within the Graduate School of Education — I took enough to declare a minor in Urban Education. As my academic interests shifted, I spent more and more time at local middle and high schools participating in University-Assisted programming and supporting classrooms. I also learned more about Philadelphia and recognized major issues in our system of university-community partnerships. Rates of tutor turnover were high, college students often lacked consistency and experience, and our bias and trauma training were largely superficial. I was vocal about these problems as the student coordinator for GEAR UP and as the chair of the Netter Center for Community Partnerships Student Advisory Board. All the while, I still saw opportunities for growth.

I believed in the volunteer work I did through the Netter Center, in the classes that pushed me to think about equity and child psychology, and in the popular rhetoric supporting alternative teaching certifications, like Teach for America. I look back now and laugh at how naive I was to consider myself any sort of expert, or even prepared to influence students and their futures in the real world. I also wonder how much of this weight should be resting on my own shoulders, as well as on Penn as a pre-professional institution. This is all on my mind because of the impact it has on you every single time you step into the classroom.

No day is ever perfect, of course, but our time spent together is always an honor — laughing, learning, and making mistakes. I love it when you make mistakes. You show me that you’re trying and pushing yourself through difficult material. I hold high expectations for you all. Yet, you never give up, and you make your strides — big ones, too. Those moments remind me of why I come to school each day.

The mistakes that I make are another story. I’m always curious about how you’ll reflect on those mistakes at the end of the school year, or when you’re applying to high schools, or when you’re approaching your final graduation. Will you think about me at all? Will it matter what I did in your seventh grade English language arts classroom for nine months?

I find myself in a constant state of resentment, and I don’t know if it’s directed toward Penn or myself. I worry about how unprepared I am to be the teacher that I should be, and that I want to be. I want you all to feel seen and heard in the classroom, challenged and supported at the same time. I want you all to feel joy and confidence when you read and write. All of these things are possible, but on some days, I convince myself that I’m not good enough. I scrap my lesson plans and lose my voice.

I was a 21 year old in front of 31 sixth graders — I thought everything would be fine. When you asked questions, I improvised. When you broke down and cried, I improvised. When you lost a friend, I improvised. My experiences through GEAR UP and the Netter Center gave me the confidence to not give up on you, but none of it could compare to living and growing with you for nine hours a day, for 185 days a year. I thought I knew so much, but I knew absolutely nothing about how your brains work and absorb new information, how your peer relationships would influence your class participation, how my feedback would bolster or inhibit your growth. A lot of people at Penn told me that I could figure it out and get better along the way.

And now, many of you have grown with me, and sit in those seventh-grade seats. I’m still your unconventional cheerleader, but I have not stopped improvising or failing. Teaching you felt like experimenting on you, and I wish that I was pushed to be better before stepping into the classroom. I wish that Penn held us to a higher standard, by investing in sustainable community outreach programs, by prioritizing teacher education and offering method classes for undergraduate students, and by illuminating critical dialogue about the state of the teaching career.

You see me at my weakest. We’re honest to one another about it. I love it when you beg me not to stress myself out, because you remind me that I still have potential. You don’t see the end of the road for me, even though I sometimes think I do. You are what keeps me going. 

Thank you for always meeting me halfway, even when it’s hard.

ANIA ALBERSKI is a current Penn GSE master's student and a 2021 College graduate.