Nikki Bollerman: Wishing for a Change

I've been teaching for five years now, and I feel like my philosophy on education changes every year. But one thing that hasn't changed is the simple fact that I love my kids and I want what's best for them.

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Understanding the struggle.

"When I was growing up, my teachers were the most important people in my life. I had learning disabilities, and I really struggled learning to read. But I wanted to be better.

Miss Tracy was a sort of special education teacher, and she showed me that needing extra help in learning was OK. Kids get upset or nervous at school, and that's OK, too. I'm grateful to have had the kinds of challenges I did -- it's made me more understanding of my kids. Now I tell them that with perseverance, grit, and resilience, nothing can stand in their way.

I've been teaching for five years now, and I feel like my philosophy on education changes every year. But one thing that hasn't changed is the simple fact that I love my kids and I want what's best for them."

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What it could do for them.

"Right around Thanksgiving last year, Capital One launched a holiday promotion called 'Making a Wish for Others.' Automatically, the first people I thought of were my kids -- how important their love of reading is, and why it's not only important to read every day but to love reading every day. What better wish is there than for my kids to have books to take home with them during Christmas break? So I submitted on Facebook five lines with a picture of my kids and I in a group-hug. We ended up winning, which was such a huge surprise, and my kids got 3 books each to take home over the holidays -- and I received a personal $150,000 prize.

When I won, the thought of keeping the money for myself wasn't even there. A 27-year-old woman who is single and lives alone? What would I do with this money, go on vacation? But what I could do with it for them..."

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A reality, not a dream.

"Dorchester is a neighborhood in Boston that doesn't always get a great rep. I teach third grade, and it's really at this age that my kids are starting to learn what the difference between low and high socio-economic class really is. There is so much data on the achievement gap between wealthy suburbs and lower-income ones where you have schools like UP Academy. My kids deserve so much more than what life has handed them. They deserve more than I'm giving them; that's not even enough.

Your education can change what people think about you, and your work ethic can change a community. We're here to be a part of this entire community. We are literally a turnaround school because we're putting the brakes on and turning the kids' education around. But ultimately, it's in their hands. I'm doing my job, but they're in charge of their own education: I can't take the test for them.

At my school, all the teachers decorate our classrooms with pennants and posters from the colleges we attended. Every Wednesday, we're encouraged to wear a college shirt. We want to show our kids that college is an attainable goal. For kids from higher socioeconomic levels, college is expected. But for my kids, it's not always seen as an end goal. They see it as a dream, and it shouldn't be. It should be seen as an end goal. Graduating from college (or even grad school) should be where your formal education ends, not high school."

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A keyboard to the world.

"So we bought a brand new computer lab with that $150,000. Giving them access to technology will change everything. The kids have phones and tablets from their parents, but learning how to actually type and research, even move a mouse or manipulate text, is tougher. Computers are here -- and the fact that they don't have those skills will hold them back. This knowledge will allow them to be competitive with other people, regardless of their socio-economic class. They're just excited about the possibility of typing up papers. That excites them. That's what makes them happy.

Next year, they have to take the PARCC test, a standardized test that is computer-based. There's a paper and pencil version now, but eventually, that's going to be phased out and our kids will have to take their tests on the computer. There are kids everywhere who spend hours on the computer playing Minecraft or whatever, and it's kind of infuriating in some ways. There are kids who just have everything given to them, and this is just another way that they're lucky. At some point, the entire country is going to take tests on the computer, and the ones who don't have that access are out of luck. It's just another example of that achievement gap. Technology opens up the world, and I want to give my kids that."

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Ready for year eight.

"A lot of teachers feel like they need to be these superheroes. But sometimes, you just need to make a difference with one and it's enough. I had a very challenging student once. When I say he was the apple of my eye, I mean it. He was this tiny little thing -- he looked like a kindergartener when he was in second grade. He was scrawny, tough, and really, really difficult. It was obvious that he missed out on a lot of love at home, and things did not come easy for him.

But education, it just opened the door. He really struggled with reading, and all year I would keep him after school to read chapter books. Finally, one day, he finished a whole book by himself. For Mother's Day that year, he wrote me a card -- it's framed in my apartment.

The year I realize I'm not making a difference with my kids anymore -- even just one -- it's time to let someone else move in. Right now, 75 percent of teachers who start in urban education leave after five years, and I just started my sixth. I know I'll be signing up for number seven and eight."

The greatest reward.

"Getting interviewed by Ellen, that was amazing. The money from Capital One? I'll be grateful until the day I die. But the best part of this whole experience has been my kids realizing how much they all deserve.

My kids got to meet Boston's Mayor Walsh, and they found out he was from Dorchester. I told them, 'You can be mayor one day too.' One of my kids looked at him as if to say, 'I want your job one day,' and Mayor Walsh looked at him as if to say, 'I want to give it to you.'

As wonderful as these experiences were for me personally and for my school, I loved watching my kids realize that school is actually cool! Now they think, 'People we don't even know care about our education. Target is giving each of us $100 because they believe in us. Our teacher gave us this gift because she believes in us. I am important, and I deserve to meet the mayor of Boston. I am an important kid.'"

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Photography by Leonard Greco.