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Abby Smith '88, Education Policy

After graduating from Yale University, Abby Smith '88 moved to North Carolina to work as a first grade teacher in the Teach for America program. The experience had a profound impact on her, cementing her interest in public education and setting her on a path that would eventually lead to her appointment as Deputy Mayor for Education in Washington, D.C. Here, Smith discusses her work and how Bryn Mawr shaped her view on the kind of education that every child deserves.

My focus on public education is the confluence of my attractions to education and social justice, and my wish to combine these two interests into one profession. I always liked school and I had a very positive experience — something I definitely attribute to Bryn Mawr. I have also always been interested in teaching. In fact, my senior project was assisting in the Lower School with French instruction. That experience was useful in college when I ran a program teaching French in a public elementary school in New Haven. It was a very different population of children, many coming from low-income homes, and yet, they were just as excited about learning French as the kids at Bryn Mawr were.
Being a teacher is both very challenging and very rewarding. I think that it is hard to find anyone who has been a first year teacher who does not describe that year as one of the most challenging experiences of their lives. Anyone who is interested in teaching, and especially in joining Teach for America, needs to think about what it means to persist in a situation where the stakes are really high for the people around you. So much about being successful in school and in life is about persisting through challenges and learning to be resilient. The hard skills that one learns in school are also very important, but the most important lesson I have learned, both as a teacher and a student, is the importance of a positive mindset.
Since I took on the role of Deputy Mayor for Education, the thing that has surprised me the most is the extent to which some people are not able to separate their ideology from a situation at hand. We have immense challenges in D.C. with regards to our public education system, and my perspective is that we have to think pragmatically, creatively and broadly about what the possible solutions are. This attitude is something that Bryn Mawr nurtured in me. I learned how to write at Bryn Mawr, I learned how to present information in different ways, and I learned the notion of intellectual curiosity and how to exercise it.
I think that one of my biggest challenges in this position will come from the project we have just launched to revise the student assignment policy, which determines where children have a right to attend school. D.C. has not revised this policy since 1968, and there are have been a lot of changes since then! There are a number of issues dealing with race, class and equity that make this project particularly challenging. But, we are going to work on it as a community and see what we can figure out.
Overall, I think that Bryn Mawr prepared me incredibly well, both academically and socially. My work has been entirely in public education, and often in schools that serve high-need kids. What I come back to again and again is that every kid deserves the kind of nurture, challenge and wide exposure that Bryn Mawr provided me. For many kids, school is the only place where they can get that experience. I hold up my education at Bryn Mawr as a model for what every child should receive.