Summer is quickly coming to an end, and most of America turns its attention to one of our favorite pastimes, preparing to go back to school.

Walk into any store in America and you are quickly greeted with Back To School displays. Families are focusing on school supply lists and making sure their students are prepared to learn. There are also the constant news stories on the alarming teacher shortage that many school districts across the nation are facing. 

At the same time, most students are feeling some sort of combination of excitement and uneasiness. The last couple of years haven’t been easy at all. Just getting through two years of forced online learning, parents trying to ban books, our natural hair being used to discriminate against us, and what seems like constant news headlines about school shootings has everyone feeling all types of emotions.

For me there is also the added feeling of a new academic transition.

While many of my Gen Z peers are making the jump from high school to college and moving into dorms, I am making a transition from student to teacher. Yep, I just turned 20 this month and this academic year I am returning to school not as a student but as a teacher charged with engaging students in AP Government and other social studies courses.

When I graduated from SMU Dedman School of Law this past May, I was fortunate to have different job opportunities to consider. I interviewed with a few law firms and thought about jumping right into practicing law. I also talked with a couple of non-profit organizations that do meaningful legal work in communities who often lack access to legal services. As I contemplated those opportunities I couldn’t shake the calling I felt to return to my undergraduate teacher training education roots and realized that at this point in my life I could take time to consider a non-traditional career path with my juris doctorate and make a deliberate decision to take an impact year to teach in our k-12 education system.

These days, many are often presented with the option of a gap year between high school and college.

I honestly have never understood the idea of a gap year because I felt if I really wanted to take a year to do something, why wouldn’t I do that after I completed my graduate studies? Like, actually take that year, or more, to make a positive impact on my community. So here I am today, a member of Gen Z, understanding the power of time and embracing an impact year to do what I have always wanted to do, teach. 

As I navigate this Back To School season in America, I am also taken aback at the fact that this is the first academic year I will return to school, but sitting on the opposite side of the desk. Instead of taking time as a student to review my syllabus for each of my classes, I am sitting in my temporary classroom space writing a syllabus for each of the classes I will be teaching. Instead of searching Amazon to rent my textbooks, I am picking the books that I will use in my own classroom to help engage my students as they prepare for their AP Exams later this school year.

For any generation, one of the greatest challenges you face is the transition from student to career. For most of Gen Z we have spent our lives so far in a structured environment where almost every decision was and is made for us. From our earliest memories, a parent or teacher has been some part of our day and they directly guided what we did for most of our day. 

I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t share that I am nervous with this transition.

As hectic and nerve racking as studying for and taking the Texas Bar Exam was, the idea that in less than a week I will have classrooms full of students looking to me to engage them and prepare them for what probably feels like some of the biggest events in their lives to date makes me realize the magnitude of what I and all teachers are feeling. Although this is my first year teaching, I am very aware that this career is for those who are willing to accept the important role they will play in shaping the students entrusted to them and helping ensure the future of our communities.

I am also driven by the knowledge that I will be one of the first Gen Z teachers in our nation and that I have a unique opportunity to engage directly some of my peers in Gen Z and help them prepare to be the best versions of themselves. I am focused on developing lesson plans that take the experiences of Gen Z and bring that into my classroom to both engage and inspire. I hope that my presence as a Gen Z member and as their teacher will help them see that they are not limited by the expectations and stereotypes that others place on them. That as they continue to make their own paths in life and they encounter a barrier they will know that they have the ability to conquer it.

It is my sincerest hope that I am able to provide the level of direct engagement and learning that all students deserve. I deeply believe that every student has the potential to be a future global problem solver who can ensure a better world for everyone. I look forward to this upcoming academic year and will boldly face the challenges that are sure to arise as I navigate my first year as a teacher.

Haley Taylor Schlitz is 29 years old and the youngest Black person to graduate from law school in the history of the United States. In May of 2022, Haley graduated with her Juris Doctor from the SMU Dedman School of Law.