The Secret to Success as an Urban Educator

I saw a status from someone who began teaching around the time that I was deciding to commit to teaching myself. She wrote that her former students were shocked that she had had a baby and that just because she has high expectations and wasn’t a “nice” teacher doesn’t mean she wasn’t a nice person in life.

Seeing that, just dumbfounded me. Particularly because we both teach in inner cities and teach special education populations, her more so than me as I am not a special education teacher, but for the majority of my years in the inner city, I had volunteered to be the general education teacher in inclusive classrooms for my grade level.

44027_article_full

And there is a side to teaching wherein if you want to be successful, meaning you help students achieve academically in your subject area, then you have to have high expectations, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t love your kids as well or that you have to be “a not nice teacher” to communicate those expectations. With city kids, that means being consistent in your judgement, consistent in your love and your criticism as well as being flexible and truly listening to what these kids have to say.

The majority of the students I have taught remain in contact with me, updating me on their lives and their dreams. They visit sometimes and when they do, it’s always with big hugs and excitement. That is how I know I am successful in what I do. Sure, I have years of data that back me and show my administrators that I am successful in teaching kids how to read and bringing them towards career and college readiness, but that’s not all there is to teaching.

I remember the first time a student called me mom. Continually. Later, when I asked them why I had become their mom I was told it was because they knew that I was there for them, even when they were acting a fool. They knew that they could come to me with anything and I would do my best for them. That was when I knew that I was on the path of becoming the kind of teacher I knew that urban kids needed.

Urban kids are different from your suburban kids that come from nice homes, with semi-intact families and better financial support systems. Urban kids are often starting school well below their suburban counter parts because of the environments they are raised in, they often have parents or grandparents working multiple jobs meaning they’re home alone more times than not or in state-funded daycare. Urban kids are also semi street smart, because really, kids are also kids in any environment and come into school with an attitude more times than not because they feel like they don’t fit.

However, if you hold these kids to a high expectation of achievement as well as give them them the empathy and love that so many just need, then you are not only going to have success in their academics, but you’re also going to have success in helping to raise a better future in that, your love and acceptance may be what sets that kid up for an entirely different path in life.

Within urban education, I firmly believe all students need it. Some more than others, specifically kids with difficult home lives and worse yet, the kids that have spent their lives in and out of the system. If you pursue your teaching career in an inner city district, you have to become an educator with clear expectations as well as someone who will become another mother or father towards the kids that you are working to educate.

And I carry that belief with me in everything I do. For instance, the college class I am teaching this summer is at the city campus. It took me less than 5 minutes to e-mail the students who missed the first class to just remind them that class was today. Within 30 minutes, I even had one show up late to class.

Sometimes, you just have to be that person for other people. If you want to be a successful teacher, you need to remember that you have chosen a profession where you are in service to others.

Away We Go: Where Life Puts You Down

There’s this Ben Okri quote in The Famished Road, a really great book that I read from the optional reading list when I took Art of West Africa as an undergraduate student at Rutgers. It say, “This is what you must be like. Grow wherever life puts you down.” As a clueless 20-something at the time, I appreciated the sentiment, but it has only been recently that I have really gotten it.

For most of my life, I had a plan for myself and though it changed and diverted in places I am reaching the end stages of that early adult life plan: become a teacher who writes books and travel, get married to someone you love with your whole heart, and finish your PhD. Of course, at the time I thought it would be a PhD in art history and that I would be an art history professor, but the way it has turned out has made me happier than I would have been had I followed the original path. Life had other plans and I grew into them because it’s where I was put down.

 

Again the tides are starting to change and with them, I am beginning to feel the feelings that signal change and uncertainty. In 2015, I took a huge leap of faith and commitment. I left my apartment in Bordentown and bought a house at the Jersey shore where I would move to with my boyfriend. I have never lived with a boyfriend and really never thought I would, but that’s the path life was taking me and instead of second guessing everything like I always do, I went with it and in doing so, I made one of the best decisions of my life: I began my own family with the man of my dreams and in 5 months, we’re going to be husband and wife.

Which has led us to a whole new set of adventures and life questions. After this year, we’ll be married and God willing, my PhD will be completed which means I will begin to look for administration positions as well as full-time university positions. We’ve begun to discuss many things, but the biggest one is: How committed are we to a life in New Jersey? And, where do we want to live?

We’ve outgrown our tiny seaside house with just us and the tiny zoo. Both of our dogs are full grown now and they would be so much happier with a lot of space to run around in. With the concern over honeymooning in Ireland, which, I think is also fed into by when we were in France/England in 2014 and were existing via Calais to Dover to Heathrow and they put the terror alert to red as we walked through lines of migrants, riot police and a crazy airport, it was all very unnerving. The world has only gotten crazier. With all the talk of what to do for a honeymoon and what our plan is for the next steps in our lives, I started to suggest maybe a road trip? What if we just drove around to all the states we always wanted to see and experienced them for a little bit? We could be like John Krasinki and Maya Rudolph in Away We Go, and maybe figure out the next place that we want to venture to or at least try to, before life puts us down again.

The Longest Wait

At the beginning of each school year, I think the longest wait is until Christmas break. Then we hit that mark of the school year and I look forward to the 100th day of school mark which brings us to the dregs of the year where school just feels endless. You’ll blink and it’ll be spring break and the year will start wrapping up pretty quickly.

That is, until, you hit June. In New  Jersey, we pretty much go to the end of June. This year it is June 26th. Which means as of today, if we don’t count weekends we have 13 days left of school.

13. 13 days that really feel like 50 sometimes. The kids are done. PARCC testing kills their desire to do anything after that and then when you add in all the end of year testing we have to do to them on top of curriculum and the like, the kids are just done. And really? So are you.

You start envisioning what it would be like if you could just take over total control. What would it be like if you could snatch every water bottle that is flipped? What about slapping every fidget spinner there is in your sight right into the garbage? What if you took every cell phone and made yourself a throne of cell phones? What if you could say everything exactly the way that inner devil is thinking it without sugar coating it? What if….

Of course you won’t because you love teaching and know you’re just burnt out from the year, but during this final sprint into summer sometimes the day dreams just take over and you think maybe Mrs. Krabappel did really have the best day ever when Bart spikes her coffee with booze after she gives him a “Z”:

 

Why do you teach?

For moments like this.

Student: “Do you have ketchup in your purse?”

Me: “Nope.”

Student: “But you’re a mom, you’re supposed to have everything in your purse!”

Me: “Well, I don’t have kids yet soooo I guess I get a free pass!”

Student: “Um, I was talking about us, Kuzma. You have us and as a mom, you should have ketchup in your purse.”

Love you guys, too.

The Ides of March

I firmly believe that there is something to the idea of the Ides of March. This month is long and for teachers and students it is even longer because there is no break or three-day weekend this month. We just go straight through until mid-April when we have spring break. It’s a long stretch that makes everyone restless.

teen-brain-3-638

Like clockwork, every year, it is right around now that 8th graders start losing their minds. It’s rarely a slow approach to full-insanity, but rather, it’s like one day a light switch goes off and the little people that you felt they were becoming turns into full-on crazy, dipped into extra hormones.

It began here Monday. First block. Inclusion class. Observation. Inclusion teacher out sick.

It was all a blur. I think the observation went well. However, two kids went into full-blown middle school brain within the first 10 minutes. They have not recovered. It has begun.

Soon, the rest will follow. Then around the end of April, beginning of May 8th grade seniorities fully clicks in and you’re pretty much in survival mode until they graduate. It’s a fun, strange time of year, and it comes, every year, almost like clockwork.

The Reality that is Under Eye Bags

I was fairly young when OJ Simpson killed his wife. Though, he was found not guilt of that crime, there really is no doubt in my mind that in a jealous rage, he sliced her and her friend up. There was never any other evidence that it wasn’t him and then, when he wrote that book? Yeah, that guy is guilty as they come! I’m glad that karma finally caught up with him and that though, not in jail for murder, he is in jail for 33 years and hopefully when he is up for parole this October, that he is not awarded it.

I have vivid memories of the famous low-speed Bronco chase on TV. Followed by little snippets and bits of his trial, but that was really it. My family wasn’t big sports people either, so I didn’t even know who OJ was until that trial.

When The People v. OJ Simpson came out last year, I really had no interest in watching it. I felt that a show that potentially glorified a murdering, wife-abusing asshole wasn’t worth the time I would lose to watch it. That was, up until a few days ago when at lunch, a teacher friend was telling us all how good this show was and how it really did the case justice.

img_1694

I stayed up until 5:30 this morning watching most of the series. It just sucked me in, part because of nostalgia for that time– it was cool to see the cars and the outfits that I remember from when I was young. However, it was also really interesting to re-visit this case as an adult and getting to see all the little pieces that led up to the very infamous, “if the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” I fell asleep, so don’t ruin anything for me beyond episode 6! I plan to go right home after work and finish watching.

That is, after I scrap off the layers of makeup I put on today to you know, NOT look like I had stayed up all night. As you can see, no matter how many layers of foundation and under eye brightener I use, covers up these earned bags. It feel like ever since I turned 30, and even about halfway through my 29th year, there has just been absolutely no way to hide these babies. Is it an age thing? Should I just accept them as a fact and wear them as a badge of honor to the fact that I can still stay up all night and go to work the next day? Not going to lie, I am a little proud that I inadvertently pulled an all-nighter and was able to still get up to teach. I haven;t done that probably since student teaching when I had a 100-page teacher work sample to finish and was still expected to student intern full-time. I got through it, and I got advanced proficient on that stupid work sample that I think is somewhere in the closet of my childhood bedroom still.