The Web of Resilience and Engagement

The incredible story of a teacher who is finding ways to give back

By Kadeem Gill

The heartiest laughs blend with the deepest pain to paint the melody of my family’s song. Fights and robberies and court and jail and death. But we’ve also shared some incredible joys – graduations and weddings and parties and family game nights and late-night talks. Tears and laughter – we shared everything together. As a single mother in Brooklyn, NY, raising two boys, my mom has also seen some tough times. She did her best, never gave up – always smiled. And so, resilience has been the cadence of my nursery rhymes and the harmony of my adult life. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties – it began at home.

And now, resilience is painted in the snapshot memories of my students and their school experiences:

A week before school starts for a Brooklyn fifth grader, she loses her apartment – her mother’s bedroom completely destroyed by the fire. “Anything except my room! What about all of my furniture? All of the stuff in my room – my TOYSS!” she yells, her pupils as large as her concern.

In one math class, the students erupt from their seats, giving each other high fives, hugging each other, and celebrating! They just beat their personal record, increasing the class average proficiency on a computational fluency mad minute. They also got through grading and tracking this achievement in record-time: 1 minute, 10 seconds!

Another fifth grader beats the alarm clock daily, waking his mother up every morning to ensure he’s on time to school – over an hour commute on a bus and train every day.

In his Math classroom, the students explore the room searching to match their visual fraction cards to equivalent numerical fraction at stations around the room. They stop at each table, debating about whether their picture did indeed match the fraction assigned to the station. They laugh and joke and reason and collaborate. They’re not always correct, but they give just as much effort to every conversation.

The fifth grader without a home heads to school every day, actively participates, and even scores mastery on a Math assessment, despite living in a shelter without furniture and physically no house to go back to. She’s learning operations with fractions, multiplying fractions by multiples of 10.

In a fifth grade ELA classroom, students debate passionately about whether August, a character from Wonder, should go to school or be home-schooled, considering his disability.

As I lead my ELA class, I can’t stop thinking about my little sister and how she’s doing in her own ELA class in Brooklyn. My little sister’s a 5th grader too this year, reading The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963. During the day, she scores 2/3 and 6/8 on reading quizzes. At night, she makes peace with the strange shelter she knows is not her home. My sister’s strength reminds me why I decided to continue teaching in the first place.

I teach because every day I see my family in my students, my community in my students, and myself in them. I “made” it – so they say – because my achievements and education defy statistics for a male of color. Through the journey from Brooklyn to boarding school to Princeton to Teach for America, I enjoyed a myriad of privileges but couldn’t bring many of my family and friends along. Now, I set out to design systems of academic and socio-emotional opportunity and support to facilitate as many students as possible to experience the same options and opportunity as I did.

I’m excited to help my students realize resilience by engaging the intertwined experience of risk and intrinsic joy when there’s exploration and inquiry. To ignite resilience is also to ignite curiosity and fun. It’s difficult to hold both curiosity and judgment at the same time. Judgment draws conclusions and closes doors, but curiosity opens them – like the beautiful door of risk. Fun, though, is one of the most important components of resilience. Fun invites others to enter those open doors, to take risks, to invest one fully and transparently.

So, my goals for the year: Fun + Rigorous Exploration + Resilience

Kadeem Gill currently works at The Equity Project Charter School, as a 5th Grade Math / ELA Special Education Teacher, and the Special Education Coordinator. He is an alumnus of Prep for Prep 9, The Hotchkiss School, Princeton University, Hunter College, and Teach for America.