It’s been a long time since I posted a “Wish I Had Written That” post, but this one came along at a perfect moment. This week is our spring break, and while my current professional life is a bit surreal, breaks are breaks, and I want to focus my energies on productive acts and thoughts.
Before the break, I asked for one more observation. My evaluator wrote in her scripts that one student sat in the back, disengaged from the class. Until we meet at our post-observation conference, I can’t tell her the student’s whole story–that she posted on the class blog her own, well-written Humans of Mill Creek story, and although she’s often withdrawn she does great work and we have a strong relationship. I went over to her to check to see if she was all right, and she assured me she was, so I let her be.
The next day, she quietly hands me this flower. No drama or presentation.
Genuinely, I have no answers to these questions: what do people not understand about high poverty schools? What do they assume? What is the guiding principle all leaders of a building adhere to in order to support teachers, students, and parents of a high needs school?
Children from underserved backgrounds are some of the kindest, funniest, most interesting students a teacher will ever work with. Despite odds being stacked against them, there is often a spirit of hope in children that does not seem to match the horrific conditions that may physically surround them in and out of school.As a teacher, I have relished in academic successes, inside jokes, and laughter with these students, even as the challenges seem insurmountable at times.
Every teacher at some point must question her place in a building. I don’t really want to leave my school. What I want is for my relationships with the adults in the building, to be just that– adult, mature, professional relationships. No cliques. No personality grudges. Our school doesn’t need heroes, empire builders, saviors, martyrs or drama queens. No passive aggressive, gaslighting or undermining. It needs equitable leadership, shared, inclusive vision building, and peace ambassadors. My colleagues are capable of this level of expertise and dialogue.
However, the more I learn about the systemic conditions that have created and continue to sustain rampant poverty and racism in America, the more it seems absurd to expect my students to bring their best everyday with NO EXCUSES and then solely blame them if they do not always succeed. Books such as “American Apartheid” by Douglas Massey, “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, “New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, and “Origins of the Urban Crisis” by Tom Sugrue told me about how Blacks and Whites were deliberately separated from one another in America in the post-Civil War era, with a set of laws and public institutions that intentionally made it more difficult for Black people and poor White people to succeed in America. Regardless of any recent progress achieved, the bitter truth is that 21% of all children in America grow up in poverty today. We know that the effects of poverty on children are absolutely crippling.
Our building understands this, and the administrator and staff do their utmost to serve our population. What I am wondering, however, is does the blame shift to the teachers when the students require extra support? When Rita Pierson gave her famous Every Kid Needs A Champion TedTalk, we all believe that we are that champion: what we didn’t agree on was that students can have more than one. In fact, the more the culture of school shifts to shared service and support, everyone benefits.
Of course, as a teacher, I must put aside the problems of the world each day in order to bring out the best in young people and create an effective learning environment in my reality, no matter what that reality gives me.But as the words of Jonathan Kozol invite us to ask, why should that reality for teachers and students in Detroit and America be so bleak?Yet, as a teacher, I cannot help but be inspired by the outliers, the success stories, the majority of students who make my life whole with their kindness, humor, and hard work. I work tirelessly to improve the outcomes of my students, no matter what their backgrounds and circumstances are. In the classroom, I am no cynic- I inspire and I encourage students to achieve as best I know how. Still, as a “woke” teacher, I will always have the dilemma of how to reconcile the cruel world with my warm classroom.What I have settled on is:1) Listen to the stories of my students and always have empathy for them.2) Show students where they can have control in their lives that can lead to positive changes and successes.3) Resist oppressive teaching practices that perpetuate the school-to-prison-pipeline.4) Actively participate in the political change that I seek; ally with other teachers to fight for what we deserve (see Oklahoma and West Virginia).5) Model self-care for my students; intentionally take time for myself and be kind to myself despite having a job that requires so much.Kozol finishes his book by remarking that “(American children) are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly.” Sadly, his words ring true nearly 30 years later. In order to create meaningful change, we in education must look boldly in new inward and outward directions.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. (Thank you, Renegade Teacher.)
Oh, and we had “cereal day” on Friday in my fourth period, per their suggestion the week prior. This is something I could get behind!