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Madeline Connors: I’m happy I found a home in education

The greatest value of an excellent education is not that it serves as a means to escape one’s environment, but rather as an opportunity to improve it. This belief is what motivated me to become a teacher in my hometown near where I attended school as a young girl.

Growing up in Buffalo, I benefited from an education that prepared me for college and helped me thrive. This was one of the many ways I felt supported by our community. During one of the winter storms that hit the East Coast while I was attending school in Boston, I ran into a family from Buffalo. They immediately offered their assistance in the event I needed any during the storm. They exemplified the spirit of good neighbors I had come to take for granted in Buffalo. Even though we were hundreds of miles from home, they were eager to lend a helping hand.

Our education system across the city is at its best when a similar sense of support is present. This is one reason I chose to return to Buffalo to teach through Teach For America. I wanted to provide my students the same level of support I received to achieve my goals.

Today, too many students, particularly those from lower-income and diverse backgrounds, are asked to achieve with few resources, and many remain underprepared for academic success. Last year, the graduation rate for students in Buffalo Public Schools hit 61 percent for the first time in a decade. Yet we remain a full 20 percentage points behind the national average. At the same time, students will be expected to compete on a playing field more competitive than any other time in history.

While there is no simple solution to educational challenges in Buffalo, my experiences as an academic intervention teacher have taught me that all students are capable of tremendous academic and social growth. This is possible when school leaders, teachers and parents work together to foster a collaborative learning environment in our classrooms and at home.

When we provide a support network that prevents kids from falling behind in their elementary and middle-level grades, we increase the likelihood students enter high school prepared for college and capable of success later in life. It’s a team effort that requires many people to invest in our kids.

I can’t help thinking about a kindergarten student who came to me knowing how to read only one sight word. After a few weeks of working together, and receiving additional support from other teachers and her parents, she had learned more than 20 words. Each day she becomes increasingly more confident in her reading abilities and she becomes more aware of what she can achieve if she is persistent. This is the kind of growth I see for so many students in my school across all grade levels – whether they are learning to master reading or the next level of math problems.

When we see a student struggling, we should address the issue head-on by providing support and resources. There are many people, sometimes even students themselves, who believe they cannot meet high academic expectations, but that is simply not the case. I know with full confidence that all of our students are capable of success.

Across the city, we are seeing, through continued interventions, greater access to resources and higher expectations. Because of that, I’m confident we can empower even more of our students to achieve academically and socially, and better prepare them to pursue their dreams.