Erica Hoffman – Introduction

The “About Us” page on a website might list facts and other true details about the organization, but it may not provide the full story. I’d like to take this time to introduce myself to you in my own words.

“Myself” is an interesting word, right? What exactly is the “self” --- are we all the same person that we were five or ten years ago? The way I see it, our “self” is that which we are now, the product of a lifetime of experiences, regrets, sorrows and moments of joy, relief and laughter. It adds up to now and continues to shift as we live our lives. There’s no telling where the journey will take you. I have learned this first hand. Right now I’m in a place where I love what I’m doing; my work and career are everything. My background; however, doesn’t always point to this place where I am now.

Let’s go back to the beginning. I was born in the small town of Lennon, MI. Besides the small-town credentials, I’m also the product of a, frankly, sub-par suburban education. Learning was always a rocky road for me at every level. My journey through college drove me to quitting it three times at the undergrad level. It was easy at that time to feel useless, like a failure. Society tells us that you have to finish college to be successful. It says you need an apartment or house, too. I have been homeless twice, and one of those times I was living out of my car. There was a lot of hopeless feelings back then, but I stuck it out and stayed the course, eventually graduating from Rutgers at age 25.

I'll never forget this day. I almost didn't attend because I was embarrassed about my age. Thankfully, I went. It's one of the proudest moments of my life--college drop out to graduation, what a journey!

During these difficult times, one thing in particular helped keep me from slipping into the abyss -- volleyball. I started coaching out of my own love for the sport, but soon discovered I had a knack for teaching; finding the potential in others and helping bring it out. Coaching volleyball started as a way to fill my days, but little did I know it was to signpost my entire career as an educator. I finished college with an English degree, and moved on to the next stepping stone, Teach for America.

I always used to hear such amazing stories of people working with Teach for America; working for a cause, fighting the good fight. All that is true, but the life of a teacher was getting me down and I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d made a terrible mistake. I was ready to quit teaching in my second year, but once again, the universe sent another sign my way, this time in the form of a much-loved and respected colleague and friend, Nzinga. It was she who taught me what it is to be empowered and to give that gift to other people. I learned from her that empowerment can alter your entire mindset; can become another integral part of your whole being. I stuck with my chosen path, and was soon understanding the power and significance of my new vocation. I may have come from very little, and I had my doubts, but last October my dedication was rewarded with a position as one of the youngest principals in the country at just 31 years of age.

Teaching is about giving back; it’s an integral part of the job. Once you settle into the life of an educator, you start to realize that more than that, it’s what we are supposed to be trying to do in life, whatever job we have. Teachers are fortunate to access this truth quickly in their work. Just as I have received the gifts of time, opportunity and good fortune, so too should I give back more of these things to those I teach. My work in Haiti has been both the most instructive and formative in this respect. Working with Haitian orphans taught me yet more important lessons, this time on the subject of American privilege and the perspective we all need in this country. We may see our upbringings as hard, even miserable. I know I had a lot of heartache in my late teens and early twenties as I was finding my direction. And while all of it was true to me at the time, it pales in comparison to what I have seen and experienced in other parts of the world like Haiti. I’m thankful for these lessons, and I carry their impact into my own teaching back in America.

Haiti, 2016. This was my first trip to Haiti alone. Through donations we were able to clothe, feed, and provide medicine after Hurricane Matthew caused over $2 billion dollars worth of damage.

An added bonus to working with those who have very little, is learning to be resourceful in your life and work. Even after leaving Haiti, there were classrooms in America that I’d walk into, expected to be a leader and mentor, where I’d have no resources --- not even a pencil! I couldn’t waver, even in these circumstances. I decided to get more creative with the classes because to me it’s all about meeting the challenge. I considered how I could teach theories I’d heard or recreate previous lesson plans I’d read, with my own added twist. Usually this meant using the things I had immediately at my fingertips as teaching tools. For instance, the smell of a can of sardines, the taste of black licorice; these were the inspirations I employed to teach kids about figurative language. “It smells like dead fish!” I still hear their laughter of pain. We’d also have a “Murder Mystery” where after a strange event happened in our class, the students would follow contextual clues placed around the class to create their own narrative or persuasive essays on what had happened. I would receive permission to have my student’s dress up for a Mock Trial, but with a twist they would carry, with pride, what job they had. My students walked in those halls not as students that day, but as defensive lawyers, judges, jurors, and witnesses to crack the case. Yes, it may be basic, but even in these simple, enjoyable activities I have found so much value, and they have greatly shaped my views on learning today.

One of my favorite lessons: Mock Trials! Can you tell who's the lawyer? Look at that stance!

Learning doesn’t always need expensive textbooks and fancy projectors. I teach through art galleries, free videos, music and rhythm --- the list goes on, and it’s all around you, these incredible and accessible tools of education. I’ve put my faith in these methods for years, and been proven right over and over. My methods were instrumental in getting every single one of the kids in my classes pass their standardized tests. In my mission to keep giving back, I’ve also created special events, continued my coaching, been an advisor to more than 10 different clubs, and even managed to raise more than $30,000 for education causes dear to me. I spend my free time with kids in the hospital, teaching them in their times of greatest need, and I continue to mentor my past students as they grow into the new generation of American society. I don’t care about the distances I travel to see them or what location or condition they are currently in. There is no judgement, there is only need, and I want to give back to meet that need. Rich country or poor, laid up in hospital or currently residing in a prison, there are no borders or boundaries when it comes to meeting desperate need.

All these things have created my current self. My own pain has given birth to my passion to keep others from pain. My own ignorance has driven my fervor to ensure others are well-informed. My own desperation has created an inextinguishable fire to fight for others’ well-being. If you ask me, I will die fighting for these kids because that’s just how much they mean to me. They deserve opportunities. They deserve resources. They deserve a quality education. They deserve a chance.

My amazing students talking about The Education Box! July 2019.

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