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What it means to be educated

Each year we invite IB alumni to share their experiences, interests and advice with our global community in the graduate voices series. We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) Alyssa Fernandez, a graduate of Allen High School in Texas, USA, who reflects on her youth and later experience as a young educator.

Apple laying on a Book with glasses. Short focus picture.

By Alyssa Fernandez

I think about education a lot, especially considering that I just finished two years with Teach for America, where educators, like me, teach at low-income schools. However, these aren’t easy thoughts and what often goes through my mind weighs heavily on me. Now, at the end of my commitment at a school where my students are all black and brown, I often compare their own education and upbringing to mine, specifically I think about what it means to be educated.

I had the privilege to spend my primary and secondary years in Allen, Texas. Allen is a humble, “small” town of just over 100,000 people. There isn’t much to do here except to spend money or eat and Allen has all the middle-class hallmarks of places to shop until you drop.

To put things into perspective, In-N-Out Burger’s first location in Texas opened in Allen and practically shut the city down. The parking lot was absolutely packed and the line of traffic to enter the drive-thru alone, stretched outside the parking lot into major streets. There were crowds of hungry carnivores and eager news crews ready to document the occasion. I too, was part of the press corps going with my high school news crew to document the historic day. Being there, I remember thinking how lucky we were that our humble town could be blessed to host this culinary enterprise. I was naive to think that nothing exceptional, aside from the addition of an In-N-Out Burger being built, would ever happen in Allen, Texas.

I was just a typical kid looking to find something trivial to complain about. I never had doubts about the opportunity to go to college, whether my teachers loved me or if I was inherently inferior. I went through those early years being educated, but unchallenged—until IB came around.

“More than anything, I saw how I was genuinely treated as a world learner and a steward of educational pursuits.”

I joined the Diploma Programme (DP) when I was a junior in high school and that’s when I began to really feel the pain and satisfaction of learning. The content was demanding, and my teachers accepted nothing less than the best. More than anything, I saw how I was genuinely treated as a world learner and a steward of educational pursuits. My teachers had one goal: to help me become the type of learner that I now hold as a standard. Their influence helped me define what it meant to be educated.

Now entering my journey as a teacher, I’ve been faced with a much greater challenge than I ever expected. My students express the doubts that I never had, and as a teacher, I have been asked to change my standards regarding what it means to be educated.

When I was a student, my status and value as a learner wasn’t based solely on state test scores or basic proficiency in math and reading. But here, I have had to redefine my definition of education with emphasis on measurement—something that served only as an afterthought in my ideal world back in Allen. I’ve learned that my students, and many others from urban schools in low-income areas, are taught to produce test scores. It was one of the many difficult realities I faced over the past two years. This isn’t to say that numbers don’t matter, because they do when you walk into school and see 7th graders reading at a second-grade reading level. There are challenges on both fronts, but there is a sense of injustice in offering students something less than a great education and it is exacerbated by tying funding levels to test scores.

“Despite my criticisms there are schools, like these, that have also been positive forces in their communities … they are able to offer opportunities and resources that never existed”

That said, the school I served at with Teach for America has been able to deliver on their mission—having students achieve high test scores. And to their credit, they have worked hard for those results—but at a cost. Students learn how to drill, memorize and follow directions and deliver results in a uniform way. This practice isn’t unique to just the school I serve in but includes a plethora of other school networks that I was exposed to as a teacher. Despite my criticisms there are schools, like these, that have also been positive forces in their communities. In many cases they are able to offer opportunities and resources that never existed by bringing in new external funding.

In the United States, these problems are complex and often institutionalized and as a teacher, solutions are not always easy to produce in isolation. Still, my experience has left me with much to be wanted. I wanted to press for change, to put into practice the very same educational ideals and values that I benefited from as an IB student—in a “small” town in Texas—where I know now that something very exceptional did happen in my years there as a student.

So where does this experience take me? As of June, I’ve officially completed my two-year commitment and have decided to leave the classroom. I left without having a job lined up or a graduate school seat. For me, what it means to be educated is to inquire and question like I learned in IB, not to learn for the sake of test scores. However, that is much easier said than done and after my TFA experience, I don’t think I did my students justice to give them the education I think they deserve.

Walking out of the classroom, I’m asking myself a new question—what is this education for? I’m not sure how to approach that answer yet but I’m just getting started.

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Alyssa is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin and a recent alumnus at Teach For America.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at [email protected]We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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