George Lucas Educational Foundation

10 Things I Thought I'd Never Hear as an Inner City School Teacher

10 Things I Thought I'd Never Hear as an Inner City School Teacher

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As a native of Detroit, I am more than familiar with the trials and tribulations faced by the average inner-city public school student. For a great many of these students, just making it to school everyday is a triumph. No matter the fact that school supplies amount to stolen pens and daily borrowing of paper; no matter the lack of dress-code appropriate clothing; no matter how wide the void between themselves and their absent/addicted/overworked/disinterested parent(s); nor the loud and embarrassing rumbling of stomach acid searching in vain for something to digest...these children get up and come to school, struggling past obstacles that many of their teachers and/or administrators have no frame of reference to even begin to understand.

As a Woodrow Wilson Aspiring Teacher of Diversity Fellow and a 2013 University of Michigan SEC/MAC Alumni, I was thoroughly educated on how the lack of true diversity in the classroom helps to entrench stereotype threat and lends a steadying hand to the burgeoning achievement gap. I learned about the myriad affects and effects of educational systems that defy the standards of social justice, equality, equity, and sadly enough, even the basic standards of humanity. As a non-traditional, first-generation college graduate, who came from a background so similar to my students, I was overjoyed when I was finally able to begin my teaching career. With my familial history of dysfunction, drug addiction, poverty, teenage pregnancy, and single parenthood, in addition to the fact that I am a minority...like most of the students who populate our inner-city school systems... I thought I would be able to connect with my students in a special way. I believed that I would bond with my students in a way that would temper the wounds of matriculating through a system that never intended for people like us to succeed. I thought I would stand beside students and with my colleagues in an all-out effort to battle the demons of ignorance, lack of access, poverty, and academic lethargy. I even thought that my 30 years of parenting experience would be of some value in my profession. In short, I thought and was encouraged by many, that I would be truly valued in a hard-to-staff, high-need, low SES, urban teaching environment.

I was wrong. What I have found in my short three years as a teacher is that people like me are truly needed in our inner-city public schools, but need and value are two entirely different concepts. Our overwhelmed and underfunded system of public education does, in fact, need me. It needs me like war needs new blood to stem the advance of the enemy at the battlefront. It needs me like a fresh bandage to staunch the flow of a wound that was haphazardly sutured. As to value, it seems clear that, needing and valuing are not necessarily correlates when it come to inner-city education. My value as a professional educator, an accomplished and honored student, an African-American female who had lived an entire life of disenfranchisement and had succeeded against odds that our students still face on a daily basis...well that was summarily dismissed by the following 10 statements that I heard from various administrators, colleagues, and/or school districts:

1. You should tell your students to try to score low on the baseline test at the first of the year...that way it will be easier for them to show improvement.

How ridiculous is that? How can you challenge a student to the full capacity of his or her zone of proximal development by encouraging them to pretend to have even less academic skill than the achievement gap has already defined.

2. I know that I have to respect students from other cultures, but I don't need to learn or understand their culture to respect it.

The statement itself reveals the ignorance and intolerance that helps to isolate minority students and lessen their chances of success.

3. There isn't one student in this school who is able to read at grade level. It's useless to try and fill years of missed learning. You'll only hurt their feelings by expecting more from them than they can do.

Where did this pedagogical philosophy come from? It is statistically proven that students perform better for teacher who maintain a rigorous curriculum and high expectations of themselves and their students.

4. You shouldn't show so much emotion with your students, someone might misinterpret it.

Alright, so I see the professional knowledge behind those words but the fact of the matter is - students learn better from teachers that they like and that they can genuinely feel care and respect for. The national fellowship that I was awarded was targeted specifically towards minorities because minority students need to see educators who look like them and share a cultural, agape love.

5. You shouldn't speak so much about the new methods that you learned in graduate school, it just makes it look like you're showing off.

This statement would make sense if not for the recent trend towards Professional Learning Communities in professional development. If the point of a professional development session is to share ideas and experiences in order to meet a predetermined goal...why would you silence someone who could serve as a liaison between the old and the new? Why would you prevent the evolution of theory into practice? Why would you defeat yourself before your task is even fully begun?

6. I don't see the need for African-American/Mexican-American/Native American literature as an actual ELA course offering. The students are already being taught literature...if they want to learn more about writers from their culture...they should read more.

This statement very nearly moved me to tears. Where are these students supposed to get the books from when the average inner-city school has no real library or librarian? How are these students supposed to know about Octavia Butler, or Walter Mosley, or even Toni Morrison when their teachers don't know about them? Why don't white children deserve to read these prolific authors as well?

7. Always speak to your students in an academic and professional manner. Avoid using native languages or slang, this will only deter student progress.

Again, I see the professional wisdom behind these words, but the lack of understanding of the true nature of human communication is astounding. The achievement gap is under-girded by a cultural communication gap. The subtle differences that exist between not only the spoken language, but the body language of any particular cultural group. The wisdom of code-switching is patently obvious for those of us who have had to subvert our knowledge and our culture to survive. It is not so obvious for those who have never been forced to make these adaptations on a historical level.

8. The parents never come to parent teacher conferences, these people just don't care about their children that way.

This statement very nearly lost me my first teaching job. Let me correct that, my reaction to that statement very nearly lost me my job. I was infuriated. A person with such a lack of compassion, empathy, and/or interest in people as individuals should never be allowed to teach. I expressed that opinion much more strongly than I should have and I may have inadvertently, (and inappropriately), code-switched a few times just to vent my anger. I came from a single-parent household. My mother never came to my elementary school programs, she never showed up for a parent teacher conference after the 5th grade. In fact, she hardly came to the school at all unless we caused some sort of trouble. But she cared. My whole family cared. They cared so much that I was taught to read by the age of four. They cared so much that by the age of nine, I stopped receiving toys for Christmas from my grandparents, instead I received subscriptions to Reader's Digest, Time Magazine, dictionaries, books, and envelopes with a month's worth of bus fare and directions to the main library. My mother cared but she was also mentally ill, and dedicated to the idea that hard work was the only way to get ahead. Whenever she was able...she worked...hard...at her job and at home. She never came to school because she was either in another world, trying to hold on to her sanity; or another place, trying to hold on to her responsibilities. My best friend's parents cared desperately about education. They never made it past high school, but they both worked 12 hour shifts at the plant and scrambled for every bit of overtime they could get because they refused to accept welfare for their seven children. They never came to parent teacher conferences either. What teacher should have the moral turpitude to make such a unilateral statement?

9. Where did you say you graduated from?

I know what you're thinking. "Lisa, that's a reasonable question." Herein lies a teachable moment. Remember when I mentioned the cultural communication gap? The subtle cultural differences observable in spoken and physical communication? That question, with its accompanying body language, was not a question. It was a statement of doubt about the quality of my education and training. A micro-aggression akin to the dominant cultures' subtle pat on the head of a minority or immigrant student who speaks correct and fluent English..., "You speak so well." Believe me, I am inordinately proud of my Alma Mater, but I began to dread the feelings that welled within as the question, complete with the slightly suspicious body language, was asked of me over and over again. I knew when it was a compliment and when it was a micro-aggression. Sincere and genuine interest is not easily confused with disbelief. The body has its own way of expressing what the tongue will not. The people who exhibited micro-aggressive behaviors probably had no clue of how they looked at me when they asked me that question. The very duplicity of this mode of communication makes it a statement. I worked very hard to earn my degree and I am determined to give back to the human family that made it possible for me to succeed in all the ways that I have succeeded. I am not the only well-educated minority teacher who has had this experience. I never dreamed that I would have a reason to feel anything other than pride from being able to say that I graduated from one of the highest ranked graduate schools in the country.

10. We have a Black president now, racism doesn't exist anymore. Everyone's equal now.

I almost feel like this statement needs no explanation but the truth of every story lies in the details. I was given this gem of wisdom when I confided in an Arizona administrator that I felt the staff would benefit from tolerance and diversity training. I cannot lie, a single tear slipped from under each eyelid before I could regain my professional composure and escape the surreal quality of that conversation. How could such a person occupy a leadership role in the education of children and teachers in a district that was 90% minority and provided free or reduced priced lunches to 99% of its students?

This is where these types of stories usually end with a transition to a new career and a dismal prophecy for public education and under-privileged students. This is not that type of story. I never dreamed I would hear such statements from people who have been entrusted with the stuff of magic...the potential to shape the future by helping to educate a young mind. The fact that I did hear those things, and many other discouraging and demoralizing statements from others who had chosen a profession that I believe chose me does not daunt my determination to stay in this game. In fact, it has the opposite effect entirely. It strengthens my resolve to teach and it sharpens my hunger to learn. On a daily basis, it makes me chose what kind of educator and what kind of person I want to be. Some days I choose wisely and some days I fall short, but I will never, ever stop trying to be the kind of educator that I needed when I was a student in an inner-city school.


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Travy55's picture
Travy55
"You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit!"

The world of education is blessed that you didn't change careers. I LOVE your writing. What a gift. Thanks for sharing.

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