By Ana Karen Perez Guzman
At 5-foot-2, Emily Leonard doesn’t come across as someone who would teach at a tough, inner-city school.
But, Leonard stood up to the challenge.
Leonard, who taught seventh grade at Tukwila’s Showalter Middle School last year, spent the previous three years teaching in Detroit with Teach for America (TFA) and plans to go back this fall.
Upon arriving in Detroit, Leonard quickly learned she was too soft.
“You have to put up a wall, have to be meaner, have to be on guard,” Leonard said. “It’s exhausting and not the Pacific Northwest way.”
When Leonard graduated from Western Washington University in 2012 with a degree in English literature and an interest in secondary education, she decided to join TFA, a national teacher corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to the classroom and to effect change in under-resourced urban and rural public schools.
Leonard wanted to teach in a high-needs area, get her master’s degree and experience life outside of Washington. TFA Detroit has a partnership with the University of Michigan, where she wanted to get her master’s, so she applied.
“In hindsight, I don’t think I fully understood what I was getting myself into, but I was, and am, inspired by TFA’s mission,” Leonard said.
Leonard taught ninth-graders during her first year in Detroit, and it wasn’t easy. She was punched in the jaw by a girl who saw her reporting a fight to security. Leonard had to get her jaw realigned.
Despite the many “I can’t believe that happened” stories, Leonard remains undaunted. She plans to go back for the students, those who opened up and trusted her. So many people walk in and out of their lives – teachers, friends and family – and Leonard said she doesn’t want to be another person to let them down.
Leonard can pinpoint the exact moment when she decided to stay after her first year. One morning, a student named Fred walked into her classroom, interrupted the lesson and stood silently in the doorway. Finally, another student let her know that the night before, Fred had lost his uncle, brother and a cousin in a shootout on 7-Mile, a high-crime area about two blocks from school.
Leonard remembers clearly hugging him and feeling the weight of his loss. He sat in her classroom all day because it was better than being at home, she said. In that moment, she realized it was her responsibility to be there for her troubled students.
For Leonard, it’s hard to compare her time in Detroit to teaching back home this year because of the way students had grown up and because of the ages she taught.
In Tukwila, she has seen her students’ thinking and perspectives shift on topics, the world, cultures and society. In Detroit, it was more difficult, she said. Students there were already dealing with issues most adults never face, so school wasn’t their first priority, she said.
“It was a challenge to gain their trust, whereas kids in Tukwila walked in, wanting to be your best friend,” Leonard said.
Another significant difference, she noticed, was that in Detroit, 99 percent of her students were black. In Tukwila, there is a large refugee population. She had students from various African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. That put the students behind because English was their second language, Leonard observed, and they had often moved from a place of turmoil. In Detroit, the students were behind because of a combination of institutional failures.
Despite the challenges, Leonard said, students in Tukwila and Detroit have shown amazing grit and tenacity.
Leonard is looking forward to her return and making a difference. As challenging as Detroit was, there is an extreme sense of pride when you see your students overcome tremendous obstacles and succeed, she said.
“I’m looking forward to being a part of that again, helping someone accomplish something they didn’t believe was possible,” Leonard said.
Ana Karen Perez Guzman is a reporter for the Maple Valley and Covington Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org.