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.

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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”:

 

Let’s Skip the Honeymoon

Is a honeymoon mandatory? I would think not, but as I began to plan my wedding, I realized how quickly people were willing to give you both solicited, but really mainly their unsolicited advice and opinions on what you should do on your day.

We had been dating for 2 1/2 years when Phil had asked me to marry him. We had talked about marriage often and about starting a family as well as all of the other things we wanted in life. We had done so probably since the third or fourth month of dating. My mom always told me that when you meet the right person, it was all going to happen quick and effortless. Looking back, I would have to say my mom was pretty right about that.

Within a few days we already knew what date we wanted to be married on and where. Planning started quickly and by spring of this year, our wedding was pretty much together. We just had to pay for everything. We wanted to honeymoon in Ireland.

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I have always wanted to go there and Phil, being the gigantic fantasy nerd that he is was all for the castles and the history. It’s really the perfect spot. However 2017 is turning out to not be a very kind year politically and I really feel like the world is spiraling out of control. I am almost scared to bring kids into this world, because I do not think that it’s going to get better any time soon and for it to get better, it’s definitely going to get much worse.

Suffice it to say, we will not be going to Ireland on our honeymoon. After this latest attack in Manchester, I believe that Europe and us will be separated for some time which is a hard realization to reach since I love Europe and could spend so much time there happily.

We kicked around cruises, Hawaii and even weekend trips like Maine. However, as cool as Hawaii and Maine sounds, it wasn’t Ireland. And cruises? I never understood them. You spend days just hanging on this boat spending money and only a few days in the place that you’re sailing to. It’s been a big discussion.

Until today when Phil texted me and said, “Wanna just spend the days together after getting married and not do anything but relax and be married?”

I couldn’t type yes fast enough. This year has been one of big changes and working really hard to pay this wedding in full and in cash.

After this marathon we’ve been on since Christmas, there’s nothing I’d like more than to just be home, and be married with my husband and our tiny zoo.

I did it!!

Things that have changed recently:

1.) I bought a new car, but not just a new to me car, but a new  car for the first time ever in my life. I know understand new cars and having power everything and things like Sirius radio.

2.) Howard Stern. I didn’t realize how much I missed him in the morning since college and 92.3 K-Rock disappeared.

3.) My hair has gotten so long that I now have a long braid most days. By November, our wedding month, I will most likely have attained Jane Austen hair. (!!!!)

4.) I achieved Scientific Merit Approval for my dissertation which means, once I pass comps in the winter, I will go for IRB approval and then I will be into full-on dissertation. I will be in total awe of myself if I actually complete this insanity in 3 years.

For the first time in awhile I feel like I am at the forefront of a huge upswing and I’m kind of just enjoying the ride. It’s been awhile since I felt this way.

 

Dallas & the Seasons of My Life

I’ve spent the last week decompressing from being in Dallas, Texas for much of last week. I was there for my final doctoral residency. Once I got out of the Dallas Fort Worth airport, I was immediately reminded of what I hated about Texas the most: the heat and humidity.

The last time I had been in Texas was when I went to La Porte, Texas to visit one of my little sisters from my sorority. I loved the openness and the relaxation that it brought. It was so different from NJ.

This time though, the residency was at the airport hotel and I didn’t get to see much of Dallas which was disappointing because I had never been and they have a pretty cool art scene. The point of this final residency was to, by Sunday night, have an approved DRP plan to submit for SMR and IRB approvals. Mine got approved the first day of “classes” which was Friday and it happened early in the morning. I then had to sit there for the next three days and work on my presentation and a paper for another class. I was so bored, but since these are considered to be “seat hours” I literally had to stay, in my seat….for hours.

Sitting around not doing a whole lot, to me, is more exhausting then even my most trying days as a teacher. By the end, I was extremely happy to go home to NJ to Phil and our tiny zoo. I am officially set to enter comps (doctoral comprehensive exam) in January. I probably could do it this next term, but with the wedding I just don’t think it would be a good idea. Better to let us settle into married life before I go crazy with another exam.

This spring was all about taking the School Leadership Series exam. ETS charges…are you ready for this? $425 PER TRY! How crazy is that??? I was so thankful when on the day, I got in the day before the 16th anniversary of losing my very cherished and much loved grandfather and was put on computer 16. I definitely felt like he was there with me that day and I finished with an hour to spare. It was a long 16 BUSINESS days of waiting, but when it came back that I passed I ran around our bedroom dancing.

In my personal diary, I talk a lot about seasons of my life. I firmly believe that women age in seasons, each one not like the one that came before it. A couple years ago, my more carefree season of my 20’s ended when I made a larger commit to my boyfriend at the time and we bought our first house. I remember how sad and excited I was to be leaving my life in Bordentown with my small apartment and my three cats. Even looking back professionally I was just a middle school teacher then with some publishing credits to my name.

Then I moved and I had finally made it to my life at the Jersey Shore, only 10 minutes outside of Point Pleasant where I had always dreamed of living. Then I started my PhD program and worked really hard to become a college professor. Then we got engaged and now, we’re going to be married in 5 months. I just don’t know where that time has gone, and lately, I have begun to have that feeling again…the one you get at the end of seasons as the new one starts intermingling. 2017/2018 is going to be a year of a lot of change: I will have tenure, I will be completing my doctorate and we might even be starting a family. All of those things, will push me into a new season of my life one where I will be settled, grounded and making huge leaps in my career.

And that’s just the stuff I know about, there’s still all the surprises that have yet to come and the very real idea that we could very well be leaving our little house at the shore to start a family life in my hometown. When I was just out of college and moved home to figure out my next move, my friends and I who were all in similar circumstance at the time, would joke…”All roads lead back to East Brunswick. Every last one, eventually we all come back.”

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Just Me, Myself and my $500 Amazon Cart

Writing a dissertation is hard and it’s also expensive. It’s also terrifying how close to the end I am and how close I am to running out of funding. It also doesn’t help that I have to buy any book I need for my dissertation because I have to not only annotate it, but I also will need to have it in my possession for the next two years.

I had to start an Amazon wishlist because my cart actually went over $500. If you’re feeling philanthropic and want to help me to help poor urban kids get access to the arts and better literacy skill sets, then my wish list is here. I don’t regret doing this program, but I do wish I really thought about just how expensive and just how much work this was going to take to finish. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the past two years, but it really has been worth it.