By Nicholes Brooks
It’s completely serendipitous that four years ago to the day, I walked into a school as a teacher for the first time. I remember being outfitted in my best suit, accented by my favorite tie and computer bag by my side. But I could not have known what the next nine months of my life would hold.
Teaching has been both the most rewarding and most difficult job I’ve ever had. Speak with any teacher and they’ll tell you, there’s nothing like seeing a student’s infectious smile to brighten your day. Or witnessing that “aha moment” a student has when they’ve conquered a difficult concept. Unfortunately, many of the inequities, inefficiencies, and gaps in the education system can make teaching difficult and sometimes present obstacles that make it tough to create real change in the lives of students.
But, I was determined to not let these challenges stop me. It was my top priority to educate children and prepare my students for college and careers. I quickly realized that the only way to make a difference was to be the change I wanted to see.
I felt uniquely equipped to tackle two key areas for students in my community—developing the whole child and providing them with exploratory and creative learning opportunities.
Studies show that developing social and emotional skills is even more critical for students living in under resourced areas. On top of this, character development can positively impact behavior and attitudes towards school leading to increased academic performance.
Additionally, research shows that hands-on and creative learning not only aids retention of information, but it develops problem solving capabilities. Giving students creative outlets enable them to use and develop the creative brain, gain practical and entrepreneurial skills, and allow them to develop a positive extracurricular passion.
Photo credit: Jonathan Ruiz
This is how Yani was born. I began developing a book series and curriculum, The Adventures of Yani, focused on character education, and life skills for young learners. The Yani curriculum includes a complete set of storybooks, lesson plans, activities and guided talking points for educators, and the text is also culturally responsive as the main character, Yani, is a young African-American girl who looks like many of the children she inspires.
Artwork credit: Rebecca Crouch
Through research, reflection, and my work as a teacher coach, I identified important traits that are essential for student success-- grit, self-control, emotional regulation and more. To my delight, I have seen students respond extremely well to the Yani series. They are using more positive language in the classroom, holding themselves accountable to their actions and have become increasingly excited about reading. It has been most inspiring to see students look to Yani as a real leader and friend. When faced with a difficult situation I’ve asked, “What would Yani do?” and I have seen students make a conscious effort to make smart choices as Yani would.
This inspired me to do more. Leveraging my passion for film, I provided students in my community with a creative outlet. Together, we produced a film entitled Hoop Dreamin’, a six-minute film that illustrates the power of hard work, sacrifice and purpose. Throughout the process students sharpened their production skills, learned the importance of teamwork, and were motivated to maintain good grades so they could stay in the program. One student in particular, Devin, has said that seeing the film “makes him proud of himself.” Devin feels that he has found something “he loves and is good at” and is more excited than ever to return to school this year, work hard and complete more creative projects.
Photo credit: Jonathan Ruiz
As one man, I know it’s impossible for me to impact the educational system alone. But, I hope I can inspire other educators to be the change they want to see. I’ve already begun to coach my teachers in this practice. From Taylor, who took this ideology and replicated it in his own work to organize the largest back-to-school festival in South Dallas; to countless others individuals who are standing up for kids every day-- the goal to be greater all starts with us.
If I can be a catalyst for a generation of teachers committed to introducing just one or two new goals to their school communities this year, I truly believe it will result in greater classroom leaders, greater schools and stronger results for our kids. Whether it’s leveraging resources like the Yani program or meeting a specific need in our neighborhoods, together we can develop new ways to inspire greatness and cultivate purpose in our communities. Through passion, purpose, and planning, we can reach our goal of creating a better world and endless opportunity for future generations.
Nicholes Brooks, a current instructional coach in Dallas, TX, began his career in teaching through Teach For America in Washington, D.C. in 2012. Since then Nick has worked to develop innovative ways to combat educational inequity in his community.