We all know that New Year’s is a time that calls for self-reflection. Whether you’re planning a New Year’s resolution or simply rethinking your path in life, it’s always reassuring to hear what others are doing and learn how they got there.
That’s why we recently asked Rebecca Slatin to share her professional background and experiences as a REALITY Check Fellow. Rebecca joined Teach For America in 2008 and spent two years teaching High School Special Education. She now teaches elementary special education in Washington, DC and serves as a Seminar Instructor for DC Teaching Fellows.
Forging New Paths
Growing up Jewish was very important to me. Although my parents and I are not religious, Judaism was important to us because it shaped the choices we made as a family. Tikkun Olam, or “mending the world,” was what being Jewish meant to me. We were (and still are) activists, we believe deeply in human rights. As a member of the global community, I believe it is my job to ensure that each generation is better off than the one that came before it.
It is fitting that I became a teacher, but it was not my original plan. In fact, as I began my senior year at Smith College, I wasn’t sure what to do at all. My gut told me that the only way to really impact the world was to become an educator. At the time, I believed that education was the only way communities could bring themselves out of poverty. But I had never taught anyone anything, so how could I possibly serve others if I had no training?
With my passion in mind, I discovered Teach For America (TFA), a national non-profit dedicated to ending educational inequity by connecting dedicated young adults to the powers of education. Teach For America’s goal to create leaders who are passionate about ending a very real problem in American society struck me as an exciting challenge. Subconsciously, I think it also aligned with my values.
For my two year TFA commitment I was placed at a public high school in Washington D.C. I taught special education; five subjects, hundreds of students. I threw myself into my work. It was all I talked about. I did not sleep, I did not exercise, and I took no time for myself. By the end of my first year, I felt completely overwhelmed by the realities of our public education system. I felt alone, drowning in an insurmountable problem. I desperately needed to connect my work with something larger than myself. I hadn’t considered what it was that I needed in order to be my most powerful self. I need self-reflection. I needed support. I needed community.
Reflecting and Repairing
At the beginning of my second year of teaching, a friend recommended that I apply to go with fellow Teach For America teachers to Israel on a trip called REALITY Israel, which brings young adults to Israel to learn more about the country and its connection to Judaism. The program focuses almost exclusively on how Jewish values connect with education and tikkun olam.
In Israel, we were asked many times to quietly sit and reflect on our work. We read Jewish texts and tried to identify with our ancestry. I was introduced to a community of Teach For America teachers and Alumni who were also struggling to connect their work with their value system. Before this program, I had never consciously connected my work as a teacher with the Jewish idea of mending the world through service. Even more importantly, I had never acknowledged that the thing I loved most about teaching was the community I created in the classroom.
To truly impact change one must find support within oneself and love from others, peers, coaches and mentors. By working without stopping, without seeing what I was doing, I was cutting myself off from enjoying the change I was making in my student’s lives. In Israel, I learned that if I took time to ground myself in my belief system and stopped squelched my fear that what I want to give to the world is not what others expect of me, my power was limitless.
Valuing the Connections
Returning to Washington D.C., I wanted to continue to reflect and connect my work in education with my Jewish roots. I applied and was accepted into REALITY Check, a fellowship created for REALITY Israel Alumni to build impassioned leaders who work to serve others. REALITY Check has transformed my thinking about who I can be as a leader, helping me connect my passion for community development to my profession as a teacher. I have truly learned to value the connections between people.
I was once told that true leadership is unseen and that a true leader helps others shine. I believe that to truly impact education, we need leaders who care about creating the best environment to keep teachers happy, fulfilled, and allow them to be proud of what they do. As a REALITY Check fellow I have begun a dialogue with teachers, learning what they value and want the most, not only for their students, but also for themselves. REALITY Check has helped me find my passion—ensuring that teachers love what they do and want to do it as best they can.
As you begin to think about your place in the world, I encourage you to think about how your professional passions connect with your Jewish identity. Ask yourself, “How am I making the world a better place?” Don’t be afraid to identify talents and interests that are unique since we are all able to contribute something special to the world. In the beginning of the New Year, find a mentor, coach or peer, who you know will encourage you to grow and serve the world. Align your passions to your value system and you will find fulfillment in the choices you make.
Rebecca Slatin is originally from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She attended Smith College and majored in American Studies, studied abroad in Chile and spent a semester researching folk music for Smithsonian Folkways Records. Rebecca joined Teach For America upon graduation from Smith College in 2008. She spent two years teaching High School Special Education and now teaches elementary special education in Washington, DC. Rebecca also serves as a Seminar Instructor for DC Teaching Fellows. In her free time she is an avid Yogi and world traveler. She has visited Iran, Chile, South Africa, and Peru, to name a few!