by Elle Enander, AmeriCorps member serving on the Comcast NBCUniversal team with Jeremiah E. Burke High School
PITW* #66: "Do three 'squishy*' things a day."
Since joining City Year I have been considering how to make this idea of squishiness, of breaking out of my comfort zone, a central point of my service. This began when I applied to serve in a high school, despite my lack of experience with high school students, in order to challenge myself and provide room for my own personal growth. Throughout the year, however, I have learned to take this even further, reminding myself to incorporate squishiness into every day.
When we entered our schools I realized I was unsure of myself as a leader, particularly in the classroom. However, out of everything we learned during BTA (Basic Training Academy), one thing that really stood out to me about building relationships with students was the importance of being both warm and strict. This entails being kind and supportive of our students while still setting and upholding high standards. I worked to merge these practices of warm and strict in my service, striving to develop relationships of mutual respect and kindness while still being firm when situations called for it.
The warmth came easily to me, and my students knew it. All year I've had students saying to me "Miss, are you ever unhappy?" or "Stop smiling! You're too happy." This ability to be warm came from my strong belief in them as students and as people, and I wanted them to feel as confident in themselves as I felt in them. The sternness was harder to come by. I knew I needed to relinquish my desire to be liked, but I also hated to come across as harsh. I watched my fellow teammates easily embody this sternness, and yet during the first few months of service I struggled to convey this in the classroom, afraid that it would weaken our relationships and yet feeling I was doing them a disservice by not holding them to as high of standards.
Eventually, however, I realized that I was holding them to just as high of standards, albeit in a different way. My way of being simultaneously warm and stern didn't need to look the same as everyone else's. Because I so regularly and consistently showed warmth towards my students, its absence had an impact. I found that I could tactfully respond by not responding, and students would be just as impacted.
The first time I embodied this, I was working with a student who said something fairly disrespectful to me. I asked him to repeat what he said, and when he refused, I told him I didn't think I would be able to work with him the rest of the day. By the end of the day, after countless attempts to trick me into working with him or joking around with him again, he approached me and apologized, and I could tell he was sincere so we had a conversation about why what he said wasn't appropriate or respectful. When the bell rang at the end of the day, he lingered, reaching out his hand for a fist bump, saying, "We cool now, miss? Clean slate on Monday?" I nodded and fist bumped him back.
This idea of being "squishy" is a team favorite at my school, with all of us challenging ourselves to be a little braver, a little shakier each day. I do this by working on how I can best serve my students as a leader in the classroom. I've learned that stern doesn't mean harsh, that reprimanding doesn't mean confronting, and that leadership didn't need to be loud. In order to be most effective, I've learned that it's important to be authentic both to my students and myself, understanding that my leadership can look differently than others.
*PITW stands for Putting Idealism to Work. PITWs are short phrases that embody the spirit of City Year.
*"Squishy" is a City Year term for being out of your comfort zone.