38 days, 750+ hours, 5 averaged hours of sleep per night, 14 wonderful Latino children, a 53 point classroom gain in five weeks, more than 500 awesome people committed with passion and zeal to end the greatest divider and challenge of our time, the achievement gap. And, one; 1 represents the immeasurable transformations that occurred throughout my Institute experience, and, with urgent fierceness, unveiled the potential of even wilder change.
Coming from the South and relatively modest, yet middle-class means and values, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, teaching social studies at one of Philadelphia’s most troubled high schools was a challenge that I undoubtedly inherited from being accepted into this extremely selective program. On my way to the airport, aboard the aircraft, in the cab ride to the University of Pennsylvania, our host site for the first week, and walking up the steps of University City High School and taking in the city atmosphere of bustling cars, businessmen rushed with coffee, and the smiling, warm faces of TFA staff, I wondered what I had gotten myself into; moreover, I wondered how committed everyone else was to teaching in an urban environment….
Everyone seemed to be just as accomplished as everyone else. Some of the remarks of my fellow TFAers led me to believe that that some did it because they had no idea what to do after college; that some did it because it looked good on their resume; or, that some did it because they had never failed at anything. Over time, these exposed and expressed themselves as confessions and humors during light and leisure time as people began to grow more comfortable around each other.
But, for me, I rationalized with myself the tragedies of how growing up in a troubled community is. I had family who lead rough lives, but I had never known it for myself. I wondered how being born into a particular income bracket or zip code determines one’s education — I almost felt what it must feel like, but I quickly realized I was no where even close. I offended my own self. Almost as an inescapable, unfair web or intervention of social Darwinism, weeding out those that aren’t atop or positioned for decency on the social hierarchy, I thought to myself how wrong and unfortunate it was. And so, throughout the first few days, I acclimated and committed myself more to the idea of teaching in an urban setting and what it actually means and takes.
Over a five-week span, stories were narrated to us that gripped stomaches and hearts in one swoop. We were forced to think and react in some of the most uncomfortable of positions and vantages. This was real. These were real lives that had been on the line. This was America.
Teach for America provides training and guidance to ensure that we’re not too blind-sighted going into our respective classrooms in the fall, that we’ll be able to hurdle pitfalls that may be particularly dangerous. I don’t frame training as the ultimate conditioner for teaching in an urban setting, or teaching at all. As I said, and I just want to be clear, this experience simply exposes us to certain challenges with remedies to help offset the damages and handle situations while under fire with some grace.
Lesson-planning, diversity, race/ethnicity/class, unearned privilege, parents, language barriers, literacy, minorities, stereotypes, assumptions, relationships, difficult administrators, behavioral and classroom management techniques, and investment strategies — these and more made up the entire training, serving as a “crash course” on how best to teach cohesively in an urban school setting.
Ankle-monitors, pregnancies, sagging pants, tattoos, outlandish piercings, foul mouths, cell phones — these are few of the authentic characterizations of some of the kids at the predominantly Lation host school that we were trained at. While I never experienced this growing up in my own public schooling, I knew that I must suspend judgment. I knew that many of these kids had seen and overcome more challenges in their lifetime than I had seen in my own. Some kids came from broken homes, had children themselves, and carried other baggage. I taught a class of about 14 kids in school on the North side of Philadelphia. My kids knew what challenge was, and they were quite aware of how to overcome it.
A few days before I was to teach, I met my summer mentor teacher (the teacher that actually teaches one’s particular subject area at the host school who observes your classroom performance, usually unaffiliated with TFA). Walking into his classroom first thing, I couldn’t help but notice the sizable, more than two-year old “John McCain for President” bumper sticker that adorned his personal space behind his desk. Great: I thought that it’d be helpful to suspend my judgment before writing him completely; though, I admit that he did lose points for the sticker automatically in my book. Talking with my white, nearly 30-something-year-old SMT for about ten minutes defined how I knew my experience and interactions with him would be for the next four weeks: challenging, frustrating, provocative, and unbelievable.
My class was the lowest performing of all history classes in the specific history I taught, African-American. Every classroom took a pre-test to gauge their knowledge and served a strategic base on where we hoped to move them from. These students are in summer school because they’ve taken the course in the regular school year and failed, and that may have been because they didn’t try, didn’t go to school, or legitimately did not pass. My class scored 31% on the pre-test, so, as one could imagine, I knew that I had my work cut out for me. My SMT provided me with what he felt to be helpful advice, and I’ll never forget this happening, a defining moment in my disdain and realization of the achievement gap and race relations in America.
My SMT looked at my roster of kids. “So, what do you think of them?”, I pondered. (All SMTs taught students for a week before TFA teachers in-training taught for the subsequent four weeks). He pointed at a name, “This kid right here…He’s retarded…He doesn’t want to learn…He’s pretty much unteachable; but, most of all, he’s the biggest asshole ever.” Chuckling as though he expected me to join in, “He’s SUCH an asshole. Stupid retard”. I thought this might be a joke, hoping he’d say “I got ya, or you thought I was serious!” However, and sadly, he did not. As he did often, he singled out the kids from the Dominican Republic, proclaiming their hopelessness. “Most of these kids don’t even know how to speak english. They won’t even understand a word you say. They can’t write it. They’re so STUPID! The thing is they’re too lazy to learn it. They just sit there and put their heads down, so you’re going to have to deal with that.” Out of genuine concern for my own ability to teach, I asked how to reach them if they can’t/don’t want to learn or even comprehend english. “You can’t reach them”, he said. “You might as well not try; don’t waste your time or energy…Some kids in your class probably won’t or can’t learn. It’s reality. Get used to it now.”
This lingo and rhetoric sung as strong and blatant throughout the entire course of my time at Institute as when I first met him. Increasingly, though, I became de-sensitized – I knew that after the kids he dubbed as “unteachable” were, in fact, actually reachable; I dismissed every comment, even his most generous of compliments on my progress. I soon realized that every child could learn, even if h/she didn’t speak english, and that it takes a teacher that’s willing to invest in every child personally to develop strategies and competencies essential to effectively educate every child. Every child wants to and can learn. Period. I gave assessments after every lesson I taught to monitor how much or even if students were comprehending and processing the needed knowledge for passage of our summative assessment: Good news — they were learning.
I knew that they could prove him wrong.
On the day before our test, I was nervous, even though I knew they knew the information. I wrote the word ’swagger’ on the board. I asked them to tell me what it means to have ’swagger’.
[SWAG·GER /ˈswagər/ N.] — how one presents him/herself to the world; shown from how a person handles a situation; displayed in one’s walk.
I told them that students with ‘swagger’ study, focus, and ace tests because they have purpose and know that there is no challenge too great. I told them that I believe that they ALL had swagger. That day, my students inarguably discovered their ’swagger’, because they aced the exam.
For the appreciation of brevity, he made discriminatory attempts to fail every male and every kid from the Dominican Republic (I assigned grades, but he had the ability to amend my ideas on participation/attendance, which was 10%). Even though all he did was fire up computerized Texas Hold ‘Em in the back of the class daily, if he felt like they didn’t put in appropriate effort, then he could reassign their attendance grades. And so, some kids dropped whole letter grades. Coincidentally, these were the same kids he bashed the most, wholly on the basis of their culture, native language, sex, and ethnicity.
Ultimately, after struggles of him versus TFA/a good school counselor, we were able to rightfully provide every student grades that were reflective of his/her ability and earned marks in my class.
My kids were challenging at times. Did I have students defy my authority? Sure. Did my students break classroom and school policies? Absolutely. But, what I cared about most, what I hoped for was for them to be able to apply learned knowledge to their own lives. We learned that African-Americans knew struggle and overcame. My students learned, but I had a feeling they already knew some life applications. My students knew that being educated at their school was different from how I taught them; I know this because they told me. They said that their teachers didn’t engage with them as though they were people. They merely wrote out of a textbook or listened to lectures. Their teachers didn’t tell them good job or that they could achieve. What’s wrong with this picture? My students appreciated my because I took the time to invest in them personally, and that’s how they were able to achieve what others said they couldn’t.
While I’m not a fan of data or standardized testing (it doesn’t accurately reflect or measure a student’s ability to think critically and solve problems), my students catapulted from 31% to 84% mastery in African-American history. This is definitely something worth celebrating. I was extremely elated. They were so excited and happy. Nearing the end, as they knew their confidence in themselves increased, their investment in me began to flourish wildly, and in turn, my connectedness with them and their lives became more heartfelt and legitimate.
The bottom line is that students can learn and achieve, every one of them in America, even if they come from rough pasts. And, if we don’t get the ‘good’ teachers where we need them the most, in the most challenging schools, then this vicious gap that affects the future of our country will continue to eliminate kids that have potential to succeed if they want to. Far too often, the mentality is that good teachers want to be at good schools and not where the most help is needed, seemingly afraid of the challenges and quality of urban education. Is it more noble to take a more comforting path and not get your hands dirty with children that absolutely need you?
That begs the question — who ends up in the failing schools? People like my SMT. People that don’t believe in the success and potential of every child. Those who seemingly are in teaching for a pay check or something else other than what’s best for children. My SMT is a living example of why there’s an achievement gap.
My summer experience has taught me that the future doesn’t belong to those that are afraid of challenge, failure, resistance, and discomfort. It doesn’t belong to those in a system that don’t believe in every child, or those who won’t even take the time to invest in every child. The future belongs to the few of us still willing to get our hands dirty.
But, make no mistake: I’m not in this movement to be a savior. Me going into a challenging system as some ‘savior’ isn’t how I want to be perceived or labeled what I’m doing, as I heard some of my fellow TFA teachers say they want to ‘save’ their kids. Now, I’m not a ‘savior’, and there’s no large ‘S’ painted on my chest. I’m teaching as a servant, devoted to every child that enters my classroom, that h/she can believe in themselves enough to know that achievement and college is possible and that just because someone didn’t believe in them along the way they can still achieve.
While I did leave a lot of Institute out, I touched on what I thought was most important and pressed on me. Because I set ambitious goals for my students, invested in them as people, worked relentlessly to pursue achievement even in the face of challenges, was my own toughest critic, and strategically planned on how to improve, I learned more about myself than I ever knew. My kids taught me more than I taught them. And, if this of five weeks can serve as any indicator, then I can’t fathom how teaching might be for the next two years.
And, all it takes is one.
One…one SMT that opened my eyes to what the achievement gap is and how fiercely urgent our response must be. One…one African-American History class that may have inspired my students to chase college and their wildest dreams as feverishly and wildly as they did As and Bs on their final exams. Finally, One…one group of students that proved that ALL students can and want to learn if given the opportunity.
I thank everyone in this experience…even my SMT, because the power of one is incalculable.