Our Kids' Biggest Challenge Is Believing They Can Succeed


Rhoda Owolabi, '11


As a college student, I had the wonderful experience of visiting the Dominican Republic through a study abroad program. As a result of that trip, I started an initiative to raise funds to build schools for the young Haitians without hope of getting an education. In a country so stricken with poverty, some of those students will never see the inside of a classroom.

Herein lies the frustration: With access to the kind of education Haitian children in the Dominican Republic can barely imagine, some of my biology students here face an obstacle that, in the end, is just as daunting. Opportunity is right here, yet some don't seize it; they don't believe they can.

Many of my students come from families with few resources and struggle just to make ends meet. As a result of the difficulties they've faced in life and in previous science courses, too many of them have accepted failure and constantly beat themselves down. "I can't do this," they say, and so they fail to try.

Breaking through that barrier is as tough a challenge as raising tens of thousands of dollars to build a school for kids in another country. Without confidence, our students lack motivation; without motivation, they fail to challenge themselves to their highest potential.

Yet in my first months of teaching, I have already seen so much potential. For example, in a class on how greenhouse gases trap heat, a student was able to make a connection to global warming, and his comment started an engaging and insightful discussion.

In another memorable instance, one of my freshman students told me she hated science. "I am never going to get it," she said. Then in one class, she got so interested in an experiment we started that, when she had to be out of class for the follow-up, she performed the rest of her experiment on her own. She was too eager to wait for results. The most rewarding part of it all was the applications she took away from the experiment. Through an informal assessment, I was pleased to find out how much she had learned.

On perhaps the most moving occasion so far, a bright, hard-working student told me of his interest in biology but wasn't sure how to apply it to his future; he thought he might go into the family business. I encourage my students to start considering potential career goals for their future, so I told him I thought he could do more -- maybe even a career in medicine. One day, he came into class excited about a conversation he had with his family doctor. He had made the powerful decision to become a doctor and could now see the potential I had seen in him all along. He now attends a local magnet school that focuses on pre-medical preparation.

These are the moments that motivate me as a teacher. Some recent stories in the press statewide have focused on college students' loss of interest in teaching, partly because of publicity about layoffs. Most people outside the profession don't know that high turnover and the looming retirement of many veteran math and science teachers still guarantee a long-term shortage of teachers in these fields, especially in the secondary grades.

The most pressing reason to teach, however, is that those of us who love science and math can reach kids in the classroom -- and we have to. First-year teachers work evenings and weekends, getting lesson plans together, reading ahead, preparing classes and thinking about how to work with this student or that one, and still we wonder about our impact. But we can see the results: Every student who gains a little more confidence in math or science is taking steps toward becoming a productive and more informed member of our community.

My mother once told me, "Little drops of water make the mighty ocean." I connect this with the power of teaching to impact individual lives in a way that remains meaningful even in a world as large as ours. This is why young people, or those considering a career change, shouldn't shy away from teaching. Nothing could matter more.

Rhoda Owolabi lives in Mishawaka, is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and teaches at South Bend's Riley High School.

From Viewpoint, Dec. 25, 2011, SouthBendTribune.com. Reprinted with permission of the author.