It is Friday morning at 7:55, and the bell is about to ring in 5 minutes. Students, uniformly dressed in their neat navy blue sweaters with “Chicago Hope Academy” embroidered on the right lapel, rummage through their lockers, chat with classmates, and greet teachers. Amid the organized chaos, Esther Wang, positions herself at her classroom door to offer a “good morning” to each of the students in her Speech, Logic, and Debate class. The classroom is a small lecture hall, perfect for her 12 junior level students. On one wall hangs two pictures, both with the founder of Chicago Hope Academy, Bob Muzikowski, and either Barak Obama or Rahm Emanuel. As soon as the students sit down, pencils scratch away at their “entry slip” which asks them to provide examples of the story structures they learned about in Thursday’s lecture.
“Notebooks out and pen in hand,” Wang commands. As notebooks emerge, Wang begins to enthusiastically instruct students on story-telling techniques. Even though Wang is tired after a long week of teaching, discipling students, lesson planning, and grading papers, her enthusiasm for learning is unabated. Perhaps it is because of Wang’s deep seeded confidence that “this is where I’m supposed to be.”
From the Chinese international student to the South Side freshman, Chicago Hope’s student body is geographically, ethnically, and culturally diverse. With an average class size of 12 students, diversity is delighted in and discussed regularly by students and teachers alike. Comprised of approximately 170 students, no teen goes unnoticed in the halls of Hope.
Perhaps Wang so strongly identifies with the mission of Chicago Hope because it strongly resembles the international school she attended in China from 6th-11th grade. Originally, Wang was born in Philadelphia as the daughter of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants. The family then moved to Houston, Texas. Wang grew up speaking Mandarin, but “forgot it all when she went to school.” It was not until her parents returned to China in 2001 that Wang began studying Mandarin again. While her parents served the migrant, Wang attended Tianjin International School. Wang recounts her time there very fondly. “My teachers were very attentive to my needs,” she recalls. In addition, the Tianjan International School’s similarities to Hope are striking: “Tianjan’s colors are blue and white, the mascot is the Eagles, and there are verses on the wall just like our school. It is uncanny. When I walked into Hope during my senior year of college, I thought, ‘this is where I’m supposed to be.’”
After six years at a school where Wang felt the constant love and care of teachers, she transported herself halfway across the world to North Carolina to complete her senior year a public high school. Not only was living apart from her family trying, but she was jolted for the first time by American public education. “It was a very difficult experience. Students would walk through the halls and make sexual and racial references I did not understand. I was left wondering, ‘is he talking to me?’” After a long, difficult senior year of high school, Wang chose to study at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. Wang’s deep sense of justice for racial minorities propelled her to study in the School of Education and Social Policy.
With the goal of teaching in an ethnically diverse school, Wang majored in English Secondary Education at Northwestern University. Even though the English program required her to read one novel a week, Wang still concocted time to serve in both Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Promote 360. Promote 360 was founded by minority students in 2008 for the purpose of serving the racial minorities on campus. Wang joined the group’s passionate Monday night discussions on race and social policy as a freshman. Senior year she and her friend decided to become co-presidents of the group. Wang’s love for the intersection of ethnicity, race, and diversity permeates her lessons. In the middle of a discussion on story structures, Wang defines the terms race and ethnicity. “Would you guys like it if we had a class on ethnicity, race and culture?” Wang asked her students. “These are issues you will think through the rest of your life.” Her students seem to agree.
During her senior year at Northwestern, Wang student taught at Rodger C. Sullivan High School in Rodgers Park, Chicago. Even though she loved the diversity of the students in the classroom, the lack of help from her cooperating teachers was taxing. “It was very labor intensive. I was teaching five classes and had three preps.” Even though 33 students were listed on the roster, only 15-18 students would attend. Some students would suddenly disappear. “I remember one kid, Guadalupe, who was a hard working Mexican,” Wang said, “He had a full time job so he missed a lot of school. He eventually dropped out. One day, I saw him walking across the street in Evanston. I wanted to call out his name out, but I felt that I really didn’t know him that well. I just knew he left and never came back.”
Because she is a perfectionist, Wang became frustrated with her own expectations for herself as a teacher. “I had all these ideals of what kind of teacher I wanted to be and what kind of classroom I wanted.” Even though Wang graduated from a prestigious program, she still believes experience is the best teacher. “No one can teach you how to project your own persona because you have to discover that yourself. Teaching is product of how you are.”
After her experience at Rodger C. Sullivan High School, Wang knew she did not want to teach in a public school. It bothered her that students could go unnoticed and she wanted to foster that extra bond that exists between students and teachers at a private school. Needless to say, she accepted the offer to teach American Literature and Speech, Logic, and Debate at Chicago Hope. Here at Hope it is evident that Wang cares about students individually.
The 2012-2013 school year was Wang’s debut at Hope. Wang spent long days writing curriculum for both of her junior level classes. Despite the difficulties of being a first year teacher, Wang’s students improved significantly in their English skills. Last year, her junior high school students took the ACT, ranging from 16-26. But this year, Wang had senior students inform her that their scores significantly improved. For example, one of her students scored a 35 in English on the ACT and another scored a 34 in reading. From the smile that spreads across Wang’s face it is evident that she is so proud of her student’s academic success.
More importantly, Wang pours into her students spiritually. The first twenty minutes of Monday-Thursday mornings are spent in Discipleship Groups (DGs). Each group of either all-boy or all-girl student groups is led by a Chicago Hope faculty or staff member. Wang’s group is comprised of seven freshman and sophomore girls. “A lot of our students come from Christian homes in the sense that their mom goes to church occasionally. But they did not grow up in the Word and that is not where they turn when they are in trouble.” DG is a time for the teachers to spiritually mentor and bond with the students. Students are very open and honest about their struggles and spiritual questions with their mentors. For example, because of Wang’s influence, one of her students searched out a church on her own and was baptized this summer.
The way Wang cares for students is incredible. On a given afternoon her classroom is filled with students who are studying as she asks about their lives. She simultaneously grades papers, gives relationship advice, and explains concepts in Mandarin for an international student. Everything is done in a spirit of peace.
Being a new teacher is stretching especially at a small Christian school where so much is expected from the staff. Last year while battling the demands as a new teacher, Wang “felt like the part in Chariots of Fire where Harold Abrahams would say, ‘I have ten seconds to justify my existence.’ I’m learning to relax. But the whole year I did have moments where I felt God’s pleasure. I became grateful for the ways God worked.”
Even after a long week of teaching, Wang drives three students to the Friday night football game. As she sits in the bleachers, several students walk by and say energetically, “Hi, Miss Wang!” Her constant joyful presence is amazing. It must be because she feels His pleasure.