As many of you already know, I am enrolled in the Clinton School of Public Service as a Master’s candidate. In addition to classes, there are three field service projects that we are required to complete in order to get our Master’s Degree. I have many public service interests that stem out of my time in the classroom: access to fresh, local, healthy food, prison reform, and civic engagement. I hope to work for programs that are seeking systematic change, at big and small levels. I believe in these areas of service work because I understand the impact they have on people (friends, family, and students) that I love. I strive for both equality and quality of life, and at my school, I am gaining and sharpening skills to create the change I seek.
The first project is a practicum project that is completed with classmates. I worked on and finished this project during my first year at the school, from August to May. We partnered with the Arkansas Access to Healthy Food Research Group, to document stories of leaders in the farm to school movement. We traveled around central and northern Arkansas to interview individuals who brought local food to their cafeteria, built greenhouses and high tunnels at their schools, raised cattle and served grass-fed beef to students, and so much more. Our end product was a series of profiles highlighting both the successes and challenges of these groundbreakers, with the hope that sharing their stories would inspire others to do the same and bring fresh food to students. I got my first experiences with conducting formal interviews, creating material that would be published, forming the vision and goals of a big project, and more. I also practiced invaluable soft skills, like patience, working with people who have different styles and brains and communication than I do, and understanding my role within an organization where I was working on only one of the many projects they were conducting. These skills have proven to be incredibly helpful in my time working in Vietnam.
While I was working on this project, I was also waitressing at a restaurant that purchases food from local farmers. I have always been passionate about food, but now I have knowledge about effective ways of bringing good, nutritious foods to communities. I did, however, miss teaching and my passion for students during this time.
My international public service project (IPSP), has provided me with the opportunity to reconnect with teaching and its value. This project can take place anywhere in the world and must be 8-10 weeks. I was drawn to Teach for Vietnam because of my time in Teach for America. I also felt like I had opportunities to weave in my passion for civic engagement with my already existing teacher skills. When working with non-profits, it is important to be flexible. I ended up not working on the original project I had hoped for, but I am so grateful for where I ended up. I am training teachers all summer, and my focus is on classroom management. This is kind of hysterical when I think back to my first year of teaching, but I have gained valuable knowledge from veteran teachers and training sessions. I was able to shape my training using the best resources I was given (shout-out to my friends that shared resources with me!). Most importantly, I have taken a trauma-informed approach to classroom management. Conscious Discipline, a trendy teacher term and idea about building relationships with students, transformed my teaching. I have been able to train fellows on how to talk to students who are experiencing stress and it has been a wonderful experience. I love learning about psychology and how our brains function. I have learned that those that experience trauma in their life when they are young often react to mild negative situations as if they are life-threatening. Their brain automatically takes them to their survival state. Our brains do not know how to make good decisions in our survival state, the only thing we focus on is fight or flight: should we retreat, or should we defend ourselves? I could talk about this all day, I’ll spare you the nerdy details. I am so excited that I get to learn and teach about these topics because they are connected to my next project. More on that later.
I want to tell you more about the day to day activities in my project and the work of Teach for Vietnam (TFV). TFV is in their second year, training their second batch of fellows. The first years are present at the training, and either helping train new teachers or working on another project called “Stem for Change.” While I work with the training team, others are teaching kids how to code and design technology to assess the water level in the soil to better conserve water. Cool, right?
Three days a week, I observe teachers in their classroom and provide them with feedback about their classroom management. We have one on one meetings and group meetings to brainstorm how to make their next lesson better than the last. Prior to their teaching, they had three weeks of training sessions. I led the sessions on classroom management, helped with the facilitation of others, and attended some myself to better understand how to teach English and support fellows. Now, we get to see all of the hard work pay off and fellows get to practice with students who are enrolled in summer school. These students are attending summer school to better learn English, it is in no way a punishment. They find me interesting because I am from another country and I love when they practice speaking English with me. When we are not at the schools, we are continuing training for teachers. I am assessing their progress and working on sessions that will help them further improve.
The fellows are so wonderful! Many have taught before but chose TFV  because they believed in the mission of bringing excellent education to all students. Others quit their jobs at banks and high-paying organizations because they did not like their current work and wanted to find work that was more meaningful to their lives. They are highly motivated, incredibly inspiring, and kind.
The beauty of this experience is I am learning how to mentor others in something I have already done. Also, because I am working for a new non-profit, I get the experience of wearing many hats. I help with monitor and evaluation of the program, and through my interactions, I learn about other departments like fundraising and recruiting. I am able to apply what I learned in my program design and monitoring and evaluation classes to offer recommendations on sustainable practices. This is FUN!
As I mentioned, my solo project in the fall, Capstone, focuses on trauma-informed practices. I am working with an organization to develop a monitoring and evaluation system for their teachers. I am so excited to share that their teachers teach yoga in the criminal justice system! This is my opportunity to immerse myself in the field of prison reform and apply my developing knowledge on trauma-informed practices. I can apply the skills I have learned in my two projects in the third. (And, I get to travel to a really cool place for the yoga training!) I am hesitant to share more details because many things are still being finalized and it all feels too good to be true. I could not be more excited about this project.
I am often overwhelmed by my passions. I care about so many things, and I want to do so many things. I feel better knowing I am narrowing down what I want to do, and finding a place with trauma-informed practices has eased some of my stress over this. I am also inspired by women I have met that do more than one thing at a time. I am drawn to contracted work, that would allow me to develop my own schedule and kind of be my own boss. It is all still a lot to think about, but I think I am getting somewhere.
The journey is mostly wonderful, and the people I get to share it with are even better
Sending love and light,
Nicole Ashley_Learning Tutor in Summer Institute 2018 of Teach For Vietnam.