Sarah Schaefer, an AmeriCorps member at Great Oaks Charter School – Wilmington, talks about the challenges of serving in the Great Oaks Fellows
I had the pleasure – and at times, the burden – of being a part of the Great Oaks Wilmington Founding Team back in 2015. Though us 30-some-odd instructors were only working with sixth-grade students, the additional tasks of kickstarting a new school and implementing a heavily disciplinary behavior program proved more than enough of a challenge for us in that first year.
In an effort to be completely honest, I will admit that my year in the Great Oaks Fellows was extremely difficult. I was never not tired. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done another job in my life that was as enervating as my job as a mentor. I am sure that much has changed since my time at Great Oaks, but when I was a mentor, nothing was off-limits. We helped with breakfast in the morning, every hallway duty imaginable, lunch and dismissal, after-school programs, in-classroom help – you name it, there was a mentor involved. I had to buy the ugliest pair of orthopedic shoes I’ve ever invested in just so that my feet would throb a little less when I got home after a 12-hour day on my feet.
Sometimes, the emotional strain of the position took an even harsher toll on my well-being than the physical strain. This was largely a thankless job. There were many days when it felt like the students weren’t on my side – which was to be expected – but there were also days when it felt like my fellow mentors and teachers weren’t on my side either. That was an issue that really hit me hard on some days and brought me down lower than I thought I could go.
All of that being said, this was absolutely, without a doubt, one of the best and most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the field of education. I know for a fact that I became a better educator because of my time in the Great Oaks Fellows. I learned so incredibly much about teaching and about myself, most of which I never expected to learn, and I carry those lessons with me into my current teaching positions today.
I would be remiss without clarifying that the challenges we were up against were not insurmountable. For the fatigue, do your feet a favor and buy some ugly shoes. To combat the thanklessness and the feelings of underappreciation, start by thanking others and spreading your gratitude first – it’ll totally change your perspective. By the end of my year at Great Oaks, I found that what mattered more to me was a feeling of community and support among my fellow staff rather than a pat on the back (this was something that took me a long time to learn, and I have my incredible roommate and best friend, the famous Shereen Khaled, to thank for teaching me this). When your students are beyond your control, take a step out of the room, breathe, and ask for help if you need. Help garner that ever-so-important sense of community that we all so desperately need, especially in such a high-stress environment!
Above all else, above all the hardships and the tolls that being a mentor can take on you, the reward of educating (and being educated by) students is worth all of it. So, if you’re reading this and trying to decide whether the Great Oaks Fellows is for you, I say you should go for it. Take the leap, trust your community around you to support you, and be ready to reap some pretty amazing lifelong rewards when it’s all over.