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Alumni Spotlight: Leaf Elhai (’09)

September 4, 2017 / Catherine Nicholas / Blog

Leaf Elhai (’09) became interested in teaching while she was a student at Maggie Walker.  “I’ve always enjoyed learning, which is a good trait for a teacher to have,” she says.  “But I started seriously thinking about working in schools my senior year.”  She was a member of the legendary We The People team (coached by Mr. McGuire) and assigned to Unit 6, which deals with modern implications of the Constitution.  “I was doing a lot of abstract thinking about who we are as Americans, and how people continue to be engaged citizens.  I remember this epiphany moment in the VCU Library where we were like, ‘EDUCATION IS THE ANSWER!’” This idea that education shapes democratic society was the seed that inspired Leaf to eventually become a teacher. In addition to Mr. McGuire, many of her teachers were influential in her path to becoming a teacher, like Mr. O’Bryan, Coach Hall, Mr. White, Mr. Sorrentino, and Mrs. Reed.

Leaf looked mainly at smaller liberal arts schools outside of Virginia, and in the end, she decided on Carleton College in Northfield, MN.   “Carleton has a really nice mix of academic rigor and a quality of not taking yourself too seriously or being competitive or elitist.  I liked that humble feel.”  Asked what she would tell a current Maggie Walker student considering applying to Carleton, she said, “It would be a great fit for a lot of Maggie Walker students, in that it’s a community where everyone really knows each other.  The whole college has only 2000 students, so it feels intimate and familiar.”  She added, “It’s also easier to step in and take leadership roles at a smaller school.  You can be kind of a big fish in a small pond, even though everyone at Carleton is super brilliant and amazing.  There’s a lot of freedom to explore but not be overwhelmed.”

Leaf majored in English, but she came to that major a bit more circuitously than most.  “I thought I would do Sociology and study education in society from a bird’s-eye view,” she recalls.  “But then I worked in my college’s writing center, and I loved working one-on-one with students.”  She also volunteered in schools during college and spent the summer after her freshmen year teaching English in a rural school in Ecuador, an experience she describes as very challenging but very enjoyable.  It was that combination of experiences that led her to develop a strong interest in teaching English and writing.

After college graduation, Leaf pursued her Master’s in Education through the Boston Teacher Residency program. The program allowed her to teach in a classroom for a full school year beside another teacher while taking classes during the summer and on Fridays.  After completing her degree, she got a job in Boston Public Schools teaching ninth and tenth grade English, mostly to students with learning disabilities.  “I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways,” she says.  “Boston Public Schools treats teachers more humanely than many urban school districts, but the challenges and supports for teachers still depend on what school you’re in.”  Leaf works in a pilot school, which she explains has autonomy in a way comparable to a charter school, though it is still a public school.  Admission is based not on testing or grades but on an essay and recommendations, and they have far more applicants than spots.

What’s the best part of her job?  “The students,” she answers immediately.  “Interacting with super interesting and creative and thoughtful people who are figuring out who they’re going be.  Ninth and tenth grade is an age when students are really coming into themselves.  Especially as an English teacher, I feel really lucky that I get to know them through their writing and that they get to know me through my writing, too.”  She has also enjoyed running Art Club after school.  “Over the last two years we’ve painted four murals in the school, which we’re really proud of,” she says.  “That’s another great highlight of my job, starting something from scratch and seeing a tangible result.  I’m really lucky that at my school, I’m not pinned to a curriculum or told what books to teach.  I have a ton of freedom, and I have great colleagues, so I can work with them to plan projects jointly.  In any other job, starting off at the bottom rung, you don’t have the ability to dive in on your own the way I have with teaching.”

What’s the hardest part of her job?  “The hardest part is working within a system that’s deeply flawed,” she says.  Like many school districts around the country, Boston Public Schools has undergone tough budget crises over the past several years, and it offers a host of other challenges as well.  “It doesn’t feel good to be part of a system where even though I know that I’m serving students as well as I can, the system is not.  On one hand, I see myself having a positive impact on individual students, and that feels great.  But for all the students I feel positively about, I worry about the ones I wasn’t able to reach.”  Then there’s the sheer volume of work in any given day.  “Teaching involves so many ways of thinking and so many different types of tasks.  I wouldn’t want to be doing all one thing every day, but sometimes it’s like I’m juggling too many things and some are dropping on the floor.”

Leaf has enjoyed living in Boston for the past several years.  “It has so many intellectual resources,” she says.  “A lot of people here are doing research or are in grad school, and a lot comes along with that as far as art and theater and restaurants.  I also don’t have to own a car.  I can bike to work, and public transportation is pretty good.”  The toughest part of living in Boston is witnessing its less-vaunted history play out in the city at large.  “There’s a huge gap between wealthy people and the city’s poorer people,” she says.  “Boston has a really horrific history with bussing and racist policies, and that plays out in the school system.  It’s hard to be surrounded by that.”

Leaf is currently preparing to start a new school year, with a new batch of ninth and tenth graders.  When she comes back to Maggie Walker now, she is grateful to be able to interact with her former teachers more as a peer than as the student she once was.  “I’ve gone back to visit teachers as recently as this past year,” she says, “And I still see teachers who have been there for a long time, who are really knowledgeable and committed to their students.”  Looking back on her time as a high schooler, she says, “I stayed at school all day until 5, and it was a place I enjoyed spending time.  It was a great community for me to explore my intellectual and creative interests, and to find great friends and great teachers.”  It is to the credit of the school and our alumni that Maggie Walker is a place that not only has great teachers but that makes great teachers.   We wish Leaf and her students all the best in the coming school year.

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