Q&A With Chris Obermeyer, Teacher and Lobbyist

Originally published by The Eagle on November 6, 2015. 

Chris Obermeyer moved to D.C. to study the evolution of fish as a PhD student at George Washington University. Once he realized his passion for helping others overrode his interest in biosciences, he turned to teaching and graduated from AU in 2013 with a master’s in education.

Since graduating, Obermeyer has become a prominent advocate for LGBTQ and immigrant youth in D.C. He won the Mayor’s Community Service Award in 2014 and the AU Alumni Rising Star Award in 2015. Today, he teaches in the International Academy at Cardozo Education Campus, where he works with immigrant students while simultaneously lobbying for a suicide prevention bill he wrote in conjunction with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and the Trevor Project.

You have done a lot since your time at AU. What are you working on right now?

Right now I work with a couple different organizations to write legislation that has been introduced to the D.C. City Council around suicide prevention. The bill [ Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015] requires that all school-based personnel receive two hours of training annually on suicide prevention, intervention and postvention. I worked with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention to have my school staff trained, so [the bill] kind of came out of that after seeing how important and how necessary that was. We’re expecting that it might be passed as an emergency bill by the end of the year.

I’m also doing some stuff around international education. My classroom is partnering with a school in a small village in Bangladesh. I spent two weeks with them last summer, and I’ll be going back for a month this coming summer. I’m working on improving the English speaking abilities of the students there and also helping the teachers increase student engagement in the classroom, and also helping them understand how to teach English as a second language.

I teach here in D.C. at Cardozo Education Campus. I teach in the International Academy. We’re in our second year now, and it started from the influx of students coming across the southern border from Mexico. The school started receiving tons and tons of students showing up at their door who had very low and limited English proficiency. All my students are recent immigrants to the United States and are learning English.

What got you interested in this type of work?

When I moved to D.C., I started a PhD program in biosciences at George Washington University. While I was there, I realized I didn’t want to spend my life working in a laboratory on fish evolution. I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to make the lives of anyone any better. So, five years ago I started teaching at Wilson High School, and I taught there for three years, teaching all kinds of different students, and made the switch last year to Cardozo where I’m working with a whole other population of students. I think what probably has me so invested in the work that I do is the fact that I love my students. It’s really difficult to hear someone’s story and to not be moved to do everything you can to help them and help them help themselves.

What difference or impact do you hope to make in this community?

My goal is to help students be able to advocate for themselves, but also to begin seeing what I can do to tear apart the systems that have maybe not always created the problems, but have allowed them to continue. Many of my students operate within systems that were not built for them — like the justice system [that] doesn’t protect everyone equally and the education systems that don’t teach all different types of viewpoints and experiences. I feel like a big push in legislation, often, is equality and ensuring that everyone has the same rights, but I think for a lot of people who need the most help, equality is not enough — they need equity. Equity, to me, is helping people realize that different people need different things, and you can serve people by giving them what they need, rather than giving everyone the same thing.

What is one thing you hope the public takes away from your work?

It’s easy to have opinions and ideas about things when you have a limited view. Once you get to understand how everyone experiences the world differently, how it’s not fair that people have to fight such huge battles for such small things, you really start to become more empathetic. When you start asking “why?” you learn a lot more than when you just focus on the “what.” When it comes to education, instead of saying “poor students and minority students don’t perform well in schools,” when you keep asking why, you start to find out it’s not just the school that they operate in, it’s also greater society.

Do you think AU prepared you for this career? Why?

My time at AU helped me look at policies and helped me delve more into the research of which policies are effective and which are not. I don’t think anything can prepare people for the classroom and all the realities that will be revealed by students. More than anything, my students have been the largest and most profound impact on me and the work that I do and realizing the urgency of it. We have to fix these problems now, we don’t have 10 years to wait until we have research about something. We need to look at what the research says now, and we need to do everything we can in order to change policies and legislation and ensure that students have a chance.

What is the most exciting part of your career? The most challenging?

Every day when I get into the classroom, I get to work with kids. They’re so amazing. I get to learn so much from them every single day and how different every student is and how each of their stories are interesting and profound, and they have so much to offer. [I’m] helping them to realize that they do have something to offer.

I think, systemically, people undervalue young people and what they’re capable of. We just don’t treat people like humans all the time, especially young people. The most challenging part is getting other people to realize that change happens when you are able to empathize with others. If I didn’t empathize with my students, I would be a horrible teacher and probably a horrible human being. By realizing that the way I experience the world is different than the way they experience the world, I have learned so much. I spend a lot of time trying to help people learn how to be more empathetic.

What is your proudest accomplishment so far?

I’m really proud of my abilities to meet students where they are and to build strong relationships with them. It’s not an award that I got, or something I completed, it’s something that’s always a process. I’m really proud of the relationships I am able to build with students that push them forward to a better future.

What do you hope to do next?

I love being in the classroom and working with people. I don’t really know where my future is going to take me. Education is really important to me and I will continue to take classes and to expand my knowledge.

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