10/15/2010 01:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The 'Privilege' Of Good Education: Restoring The Right To Learn

On Oct. 1, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addressed the City Year Los Angeles corps during our Opening Ceremony, thanking us for serving the students of the city. It is vital, the mayor said, for those who have had the privilege of a good education to give back.

The word "privilege" jumped out at me. Lately, I've been grappling with the idea of a good education as a privilege. I know that I have been extremely lucky in having had great teachers, and it is something that I strive not to take for granted. But I wish I could.

Shouldn't we all take a great education for granted? Why isn't it assumed without a second thought that every student in this nation, and in every other nation, will be placed in a well-stocked learning environment led by capable, committed, competent adults?

Unfortunately, school districts across the nation are dealing with budget cuts and overcrowded classrooms, and teachers are finding themselves wading through oceans of paperwork or relegated to behavior management, instead of being able to do the jobs they signed up for.

Solving the education crisis is going to take longer than this "education moment"; the current national attention is only going to be effective if we can hold it, and transform current interest into a sustained effort with multiple solutions. As that happens, one of the potential solutions is national service, through organizations such as City Year.

Last year, along with 1,550 other corps members across the United States, I arrived at school before the student's first bell, attended class to provide one-on-one and small group tutoring, and helped run an after-school program. In the classroom, I saw my role as that of a nagging cheerleader -- supportive, but relentless about the importance of academics.

This year, I am serving as the curriculum coordinator for CYLA's Young Heroes program, which brings together 100 middle school students from across Los Angeles to engage in social justice curriculum and community service. I've realized that the true privilege in education is having the opportunity to lead a learning environment, and with that privilege comes the responsibility of educating well.

Constantly, I think of my own teachers and professors, who pushed me during my education, drawing on them for inspiration in my own work. The ones I remember most clearly were positive but tough, creative, dedicated, invested. Most importantly, the teachers I remember most gave me the gifts of high expectations and the belief that I could reach them.

I am excited and more than a little nervous to plan workshops, simulations and discussions on topics such as disability awareness, homelessness and community systems that lead to social ills like violence, racism and poverty. I feel pressure to lead engaging curriculum, but I keep in mind that learning is an ongoing experience -- for me, too. As a student told me last week, "Everybody has a story to tell, and we can't just base ourselves on the small corner of the world that we have."

While talking with other corps members recently, I came up with a rather tortured metaphor: Our students, I said, are like seeds, and our work each day is like drops of water. We help nurture them, but we are not the only influences in their lives -- it's impossible to know which drop of water makes the difference and brings a seed to first unfurl.

The metaphor also lends some perspective to our work. The role of an educator is not to lecture from on high, filling empty vessels with a predetermined amount of "correct" knowledge. Instead, educators guide students to unlock the potential already within them, and it is our responsibility to trust our students to bloom and to know each one as a unique individual with unique needs.

During our opening ceremony, as I pledged to serve a second City Year, I thought about Frank McCourt's description of his headmaster, Mr. O'Halloran, who urged his students to gather as much information as possible: "You have to study and learn so that you can make up your own mind about history and everything else but you can't make up an empty mind. Stock your mind, stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it."

As corps members, we are not just tutors, mentors and role models; we are also educators, helping our students to stock their minds and empowering them to make their own decisions with as many tools as they have possibilities.