why Finland, why now, why me?

WrightIf there is one thing I have learned in my thirty five years, it is that life is not static; it will go on changing with or without your consent.  The (now three) times in my life I have assumed the role of cancer patient have, among other things, made me appreciative of the fragility of life and helped me recognize that if I want to change things in my life, the world, the classroom next door, the time to start is now…

There are three professional decisions I have made to date that have impacted me tremendously:

Decision #1: About ten years ago, I volunteered to tutor inmates at an all-male maximum security prison through a privately-funded program out of Bard College.  I’m not really sure what prompted this.  I was terrified at first. I began volunteering in 2004, before I had ever entered a classroom of my own, and clearly remember my fear as I was first bustled through the metal detectors, led through guarded steel doors, and escorted through the prison to the section designated for classes.  This experience had a monumental impact on me.  At the most base level, it taught me to push myself to do things that I think I am too scared to do.  Professionally, I was exposed to students who were struggling on a number of different levels.  Educationally, they felt frustrated and hopeful at the same time and needed more than just grammar instruction. They needed someone to understand where they were coming from and where they were trying to go. The experience helped me recognize that my power as an advocate lies not only in my ability to act on behalf of my students, but, even more so, in my giving them the tools they need to act on their own behalf.  I also learned that if I challenge myself professionally to go above and beyond what I think I am capable of, the rewards to both my personal growth and my practice would be tenfold.

Decision #2: The Newburgh Enlarged City School District, where I teach now, is an urban district and the city in which it resides is cited as one of the top 100 most dangerous cities in the country.  The community has a high poverty level, an increasing juvenile incarceration rate, entrenched drug and gang issues, a significant population of Limited English Proficient Learners and an extremely low tax base upon which to support its schools.  These issues manifest themselves on a daily basis through high truancy rates, suspension rates, dropout rates, teenage pregnancies and low academic performance.  Despite this, Newburgh Free Academy was my first choice when applying for teaching jobs.  I wanted to practice in a setting where I felt I might have a dramatic impact on the lives of students and, like my experiences with the inmates, where I was in a position to learn from those whom I was teaching.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  I have had students whose personal situations have floored me; I have seen teenagers go through things that I don’t think I could handle with half of the grace they have shown; I have seen young adults come apart at the seams over relationships, grades, family issues, and things I couldn’t even pretend to understand; I have felt utterly helpless and frustrated by students’ lack of discipline, diligence, empathy, you name it.  But, like other educators all over the country, each day I get better at what I am doing.  Each day I reach a student in a new way, or see a teenager come to an understanding that they weren’t capable of yesterday.  Despite all of the problems that surround the high school where I teach, the students who file into my classroom, and my colleagues’ classrooms, feel safe and respected; and because of that they do learn, and so do I.  This learning stance has driven my work ever since.  I do not pretend to have all the answers, but readily jump at the opportunity to learn from and with others. Every chance I get, I collaborate with colleagues and encourage my students to do the same…and more often than not, it pays off tenfold.

Decision #3: And now this.  I have (despite my mother’s best efforts to keep me near) managed to find a way to ship myself half way around the world because I see things that are happening to education in this country that I don’t think are right and I want to do something about it.  Enter the folks at Fulbright.  I don’t pretend to think that studying how they do things in Finland for a few months is going to give me some comprehensive understanding about what education needs to look like here.  But I can say this with certainty: standardization, privatization, and corporation driven changes are having a deleterious effect on what education can and should look like in this country. Among other things, this Fulbright experience will give me a stronger, more wide-reaching voice as an advocate against what I see as harmful to the students I see on a daily basis.  I hope to absorb everything I can from the teachers and administrators with whom I will be spending so much time. Every teacher should have the opportunity to reflect on their practice and conduct research in their field…imagine that!

I can only hope that this latest adventure will prove to have such an impact on me, although I can’t imagine how it couldn’t.  Now I just need to figure out how to pack up three months worth of my life into one very big suitcase…


About christine mccartney

I am a teacher, a wife, a proud aunt, a dog rescuer, a person who has been rescued by my rescued dogs, a hiker, a four time (phew!) cancer survivor, a runner, a tattoo addict, a vegetarian, an advocate, a friend and a happy traveller. Enjoy!
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8 Responses to why Finland, why now, why me?

  1. Jeanne Morelli says:

    Christine…I am so impressed by your observations and look forward to reading more about your adventures! Love, Aunt Jeanne

  2. Steve Masson says:

    Christine! This is so exciting. I have a student who is engaging on a 15 week inquiry project on American belief systems relative to other cultures. He is starting with education and planning on branching out from there. he will be blogging his findings, thoughts etc along the way. I am going to point him in the direction of your blog. Hopefully the two of you can exchange ideas along the way. I’ll be in touch and so will he!

    Can’t wait to keep for further posts! Have a great time, Christine. You rock!

    • Steve Masson says:

      **Can’t wait to keep up with further posts.

      • Please do, Steve! I can definitely either get him in touch with Finnish teachers/students or answer any questions he might have that I can help with. Also, it would be fabulous just to hear about his research process. Good to hear from you!

  3. Doug says:

    Hope your trip was relatively comfortable and stress free, and hope you start blogging all of your adventures in detail. (Although I will understand if you are too busy living the adventure to take the time to write about it.)

  4. WOW – you are indeed a (local) inspiration whose potential to change the world …I applaude your reflection, bravery and your determination to make a difference every day in what you do. KUDOS! and for your mom, PRAYERS!

  5. blkdrama says:

    Reblogged this on blkdrama and commented:
    Christine is gearing up for her Finland Adventure

  6. Bonnie K says:

    Powerful piece of writing and reflection. Script for the documentary… Im soooo excited its finally happening!

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