Is this about the Olympics?
No. It’s a list of the homelands proudly represented by the students in my two fourth grade Humanities classes at Rocketship United Academy (RUA) in Nashville.
As I sat with my students on the carpet for our daily Community Circle last Friday, the last day of the first week of school, I was stunned. Speechless, actually. (And as my students and co-teachers can already tell you after one week, that’s not something that happens very often.)
As the dad of three girls born on two continents, diversity is one of my family’s core values. Before my first day at RUA, I had seen the school’s diversity numbers on paper: 34% Hispanic, 42% African American, 42% English Learners. But sitting with them on the carpet that day and hearing their stories in the flesh awakened something deep within my teacher soul. And I wasn’t sure at first exactly what it was.
“I was born in Nairobi. We still have family there. We miss them, but my mother tells me we can get a better education here.”
“My parents moved here from Egypt before I was born. I’ve never visited, but I want to. My parents say it might be a long time before we can, but they promise they’ll take me.”
“I was born right here in Nashville, Mr. Egly,” one student said, dropping her head. “I don’t have a cool story like that.”
“Oh, yes you do!” I said. “Your story is like my story! You and I have the honor and the gift of learning from so many new friends from places we have never been!”
And then it hit me. The reason for my stunned silence. The cause of the soul-stirring moment I had just experienced. You see, I thought I was coming to Rocketship United Academy to teach these students. And I wasn’t wrong, I will teach them. Together this year, with the most talented team of educators and administrators I have ever had the opportunity to be a part of, we will participate in our own Olympics of sorts. We will clear hurdles, climb STEPs, and close gaps. But it’s not just that. I realized in that moment that there was so much more. I was not the only teacher in the room. I was one of twenty-seven. Twenty-six amazing fourth graders and one lucky 30-something with a fourth grader’s curiosity who will share our lives and space for the next ten months, opening each other’s hearts and minds to new horizons of understanding, acceptance, and achievement. Creating a culture that values each individual, and listens to every voice, whether they are from Nashville or Nairobi.
I am grateful to now be working for a school network that encourages teachers to work for justice on behalf of vulnerable children and prioritizes student achievement. I am so proud to be part of this diverse family of Rocketeers!
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Jason is a 4th grade Humanities teacher at Rocketship United Academy In Nashville and a participant in the network’s Rising Leaders program. His has taught in district, private, and public charter schools and has served as an executive for two nonprofit organizations. As a single father of three adolescent girls, Jason thoroughly enjoys the drama-free company of his three year-old rescue dog, Skittles. He holds a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from the University of Tennessee and an M.Div. from Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY.