–Mohini Tangri ’24

During the second semester of my junior year, I decided to apply to Harvard’s Junior Deferral Program. I was excited and nervous — I didn’t know what my chances were, and I also wasn’t sure what I would spend my two gap years doing if I got in. But in June of 2018, I got the phone call that I had been accepted to the program.

Initially, I was a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I could do with my deferral period. I knew some past admits had spent their two years in Hollywood, and that others spent their time starting a business from scratch. For a while, I considered working as a flight attendant to get the opportunity to travel and meet people from all over the world. However, having spent my entire undergraduate career focused on human rights issues, I decided I wanted to spend my gap years exploring hands-on work that could directly and immediately improve the lives of people I was working with. I ultimately applied to Teach for America to work as a high school Algebra 2 teacher at a low-income school.

Adjusting to Teacher Life

All new teachers attended an intensive summer training program in Los Angeles before starting full-time work. We woke up at 5:30 am every day to make it on time to the morning classes we were teaching in Watts. In the afternoon, we attended classes to hone our teaching skills. We worked late into the night preparing our lesson plans for the following day, just to wake up and do it all over again.

My group worked to teach middle schoolers remedial Algebra 1. These students faced a variety of difficulties. Several struggled to stay awake. Others had trouble at home, and still others did not speak English. Despite these challenges, my team worked hard to give interesting and effective lessons. I slowly realized the importance of opening myself up to the students in a way that encouraged reciprocity. Gradually showing them I trusted them by demonstrating some of my vulnerability helped them realize they could do the same with me.

Learning to trust a new adult was difficult for many of our students, but it was an essential step towards beginning to see school as a place of safety and learning, rather than a forced distraction that was keeping them from addressing their real-life problems.

I used the skills I developed that summer as soon as I began my full-time job as a high school Algebra 2 teacher in Ewa Beach, Oahu; however, keeping up with the demands of the job proved difficult. I frequently worked 12–13 hour days; after teaching all day, I would come home and immediately begin grading and providing feedback on student assignments. Once I got all of the grading done, I would take a moment to eat dinner with my roommates, who were all also teachers. We rotated cooking for one another, making sure our meals covered both that night’s dinner and the next day’s lunch for $5 or less. After eating, I would go right back to lesson planning.

Luckily, staying this busy kept costs down, and my roommates and I supported one another as we learned to adjust to our new post-college lives. Learning to tackle adult problems in this environment while also trying to be role models for teenagers was tough, but together, we found a way to do it and do it well.

Being a Therapist, Friend, and Advisor

Students at my school, which had previously been a Title 1 school, faced many of the same challenges as my students in Watts, LA. I quickly saw the segregation that existed on the island and the way that gang violence affected my students’ ability to focus in school. Given this environment, it became clear that to be an effective teacher, I had to be a therapist, a friend, and an advisor. Especially after two lockdowns on campus, it became clear I needed to focus on connecting more deeply with my students. Above all, I needed to convince my students that school could be a respite from everything else that was happening in the world outside the classroom. By offering check-in opportunities every day after school, I got the opportunity to become close with several of them. Showing them that I would catch them when they fell, would listen to them when they needed an ear, and would help them when they felt most alone was how I slowly, but surely, gained their trust.

Then, COVID hit. The same day that closures were announced, Hawaii was placed under a tsunami warning. It felt like the world was falling apart. During a time when nobody, even veteran teachers, knew how to approach the situation, my fellow teachers and I learned to rely on one another even more than before. My students were affected particularly strongly by school closures, as many were receiving school lunch and did not have access to computers, solid internet, or translation resources. Everyone came together to fill in the gaps: some teachers organized students so that they knew where to get food from the school, while I printed coursework material for students without internet access and drove to their houses to deliver them individually.

I strove to keep my curriculum relevant and interesting despite the crisis the world was facing. I taught exponents through the lens of the spread of viruses and the ups and downs of the stock market. I started a meme competition to keep my spirits high.

I developed even stronger relationships with my students, striving to fill multiple roles all at once: that of an instructor, an entertainer, a friend, a therapist, and a mentor.

To my students, I became someone who filled in the gaps; someone who caught those falling through the cracks. And together, we were able to finish out the school year.

I look back on my time teaching with great fondness. I never would have discovered my passion for teaching if it weren’t for the JDP program.

While at HLS, I have continued to use my teaching skills as a member of the Board of Students Advisors (a “BSA”) and as a Resident Advisor. As a BSA, I have gotten the opportunity to serve as both a peer advisor and a teaching assistant to a group of 10–15 1Ls each year, supporting them through the often challenging transition to law school and guiding them through the 1L Legal Research and Writing course. Being a BSA has been the best experience I have had in law school. Looking forward, I am excited to continue searching for a path within the legal profession that allows me to integrate my love for teaching into my everyday work.

Filed in: Junior Deferral Program, Student Voices

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