This piece was written by MIT freshman Anna Ho, who was one of 12 students who participated in this year’s Four Weeks for America Challenge.

Put yourself in the shoes of an Algebra II teacher. At the end of the year, the juniors in your class must take an exam called the NMSBA: the New Mexico Standards-Based Assessment, which covers material through Algebra II. If they pass, they can graduate. If they fail, they cannot graduate, and therefore cannot go onto college. Fifteen students sit before you, some who have gone through their entire academic careers without understanding the difference between addition and division, or how to manipulate positive and negative numbers.

How do you teach students to solve a system of equations if they do not know the difference between addition and division? Take the time to review the basics, and you have no time to teach them what they need to know for the NMSBA. Don’t take the time to do it, and they struggle to learn new material, and lack the tools to problem-solve. Combine that with opportunity lost to snow days, professional development days, national holidays, days that students simply skip — and you face a daunting challenge.

I spent Independent Activities Period becoming painfully aware of these challenges, and working with brave, tireless teachers to tackle them. This was part of the Four Weeks For America challenge, run by the Public Service Center, which paired students with Teach For America teachers around the country. The school I was placed at is 100 percent Navajo, and has a graduation rate of about 28 percent. We were isolated; the school and the 12 houses that the teachers live in make up an island of civilization, in miles and miles of barren New Mexico desert.

Out there, I co-existed as educator and learner.

On the educator side: I left school every day smeared with whiteboard marker. My before-school, lunch and after-school time was the kids’ time to ask me for help. I put so much of myself into tutoring and mentoring that when one of my kids (they were “my kids” after only a couple of days) failed a test, I felt that it was my failure. When one of them showed significant improvement, I celebrated as though it were my own. Chatter and giggling during class drove me crazy, when just eight months ago I was highly entertained by the chattering and giggling of my high school peers.

I have come to believe that teaching is an art form: preparation followed by performance, with the energy and creativity to improvise if — when — something doesn’t go according to plan. I found myself frantically devising new ways to explain the same concept, and spent hours creating visual aids. Teaching is a subtle art. Human beings are sensitive. Make a face when a student gives a wrong answer, and he or she may shy away from participating for the rest of the semester. Fail to acknowledge improvement, and a student may stop daring to improve. Most dangerous of all, fail to make it absolutely clear that you believe in every individual’s ability to succeed — and students are unable to believe in themselves.

Continue reading Anna Ho's story on the Public Service Center website