Nick Courtney

"I have thoroughly enjoyed my work for Breakthrough this summer.  I have never done anything as challenging or time-consuming that has been as rewarding as this experience. I am also surprised by how close I have gotten to be with my students and my co-workers. I wake up at six every morning with a smile on my face knowing that I get to work with kids and improve their lives."

Expectations, whether self-appointed or instilled, are set upon all of us. I was born into a family whose parents consistently held different ideological views and values. My mother’s family is of northern European descent and she is a practicing Buddhist. My father is a Native American, a member of the Makah tribe, and is unaffiliated with any religion. My parents did, however, always align on one issue – education. There was never a question--I was going to college.

In my experience, the quest for education is not one that is linear--not for myself, and not for most of my friends and colleagues. I have traveled throughout the United States and been exposed to many different cultures right here in our own country.  I have witnessed numerous communities and groups fall into the trap of becoming increasingly dependent on systems that are out of their control. From visiting tribal schools along the West Coast and in the Southwest to visiting secondary charter schools on the East Coast and South, I have seen first-hand that lower income demographic areas do not receive the same education as their more privileged peers. Factors such as inadequate housing, healthcare and public policy all place added pressures on the success rates of students in the educational systems in these demographic areas.

I believe that education is a type of currency and it is a key ingredient in creating self-reliance.  In addition to urging and preparing one to be self reliant, education eliminates the need for programs that too often lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

My name is Nick Courtney and I attend Western Washington University.  I am entering my senior year and will be graduating this coming spring with a degree in Sociology and Social Studies and hopefully with a minor in Diversity in Higher Education. After graduating, I plan to go on get my teaching certification and teach for the next five years. After I gain experience in the frontlines of education as a teacher, I would like to obtain my doctorate in Educational Policy and Administration. My desire is to work toward increasing the level of equality in education and to also work toward increasing systems of equity that factor into ones educational choices.

I first heard about Breakthrough by simply Googling educational internships to find out what was available. In past summers, I tutored at local high schools in the Seattle area and worked in restaurants in order to pay for my school and living expenses. I wanted to do something different this summer, something that I felt would really help me prepare for the future. I wanted a serious internship working with students, so I applied online after reading Breakthrough's mission and navigating their website. What struck me about Breakthrough was its collaborative aspect. We were not applying to be classroom helpers whose only duty was to help with a few students. We were applying to be teachers who would be responsible for creating the lessons, monitoring behavior and running the classrooms. I spent time with my mother on the East Coast and I knew that I wanted to return to the East Coast to teach and do my graduate studies in the future, so visiting graduate programs has also kept me busy. Philadelphia was my second choice after New York, and soon after applying to Breakthrough, I learned I made it to the second round of interviews where I was invited to teach my mock lesson in person or in a video. I knew that I would be a stronger candidate if I came to do the presentation in person and let my charisma shine through so I arranged to fly out out on a Thursday, interview on Friday, and fly home later that evening. I was offered a position teaching ninth grade geometry and didn’t think twice about saying yes. My family is very proud of me and what I am doing, and they all love to hear about the experiences I have while I here learning how to teach. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed my work for Breakthrough this summer.  I have never done anything as challenging or time-consuming that has been as rewarding as this experience. I am also surprised by how close I have gotten to be with my students and my co-workers. I wake up at six every morning with a smile on my face knowing that I get to work with kids and improve their lives. I have created relationships with a handful of students who do not feel they have space in their lives to call their own. My students have shared with me that this is due to having to share rooms with their siblings or maybe even with their entire family. I believe everyone needs a space to themselves. To help with this, I bought several of my students journals so they can have something that is just for them. Writing in their journals is a way to cope with their challenges and the frustrating times they may have. As a staff, we leave Drexel around six every afternoon-- exhausted, yet excited for the next day. In our evening meetings, we share stories of students opening up to us, funny movements that happened throughout the day, and exchange advice about how to deal with particular students and situations.

One of the best things about Breakthrough is the collaborative aspect. I mentioned it as one of the things that attracted me to the program in the first place. Not only are these kids making gains in their academic lives, but we--as interns--are learning how to better our skills as teachers, mentors and citizens. Our staff spans a wide spectrum of age, gender, sexual orientation and financial backgrounds. Learning how to work with such a diverse group is good for us and for students.

My biggest challenge this summer has been increasing my student’s confidence. By being placed in a system that often feels like it is swayed toward failure, these students know what is statistically expected from them by the rest of society. Algebra can be intimidating and while students understand the material, they do not fully feel comfortable in knowing that they know the material. I have spent hours every weeknight on my cell phone with my students texting me pictures of their work and wondering if they are doing it correctly. While 90% of them are doing it correctly, I find that they just want someone to provide them with positive reinforcement and I know that is a big part of teaching. Not only do I teach algebra but I also run a leadership and event-planning club.  The goal of the club is to increase each student’s ability in public speaking and inspire confidence in their abilities to participate in conversations.  We have tackled everything from simple things like dinner etiquette to complex tasks such as planning large-scale events like our summer celebration. All of these things have been intended to better prepare them for a more successful future.

My students rise to expectations placed upon them every day in class. We as a teaching staff believe in them and expect them to uphold expectations all throughout program. As our work in the classroom is ending, I see the students not only rise to our expectations, but also set higher expectations and goals for themselves and reach those as well. What I think Breakthrough does best is instill and encourage high expectations of our students. By doing so our students own those expectations themselves, which is what will make a true difference in their future. I am confident in every single one of my student’s futures and I hope that knowing I believe in their ability to be successful increases their own confidence within themselves.