Two weeks ago, on Thursday and Friday, teachers in my building attended a mandatory morning program on reaching students with Asperger’s syndrome. I have three in my various classes, and, based on my experiences, the different proclivities described could not be universally ascribed. In fact, the best advice I heard came from one specialist who repeated a truism clearly dear to her profession, “If you have met one child with autism, well, you’ve met one child with autism.”
The respect for individuality prescribed at those meetings applies equally well to all urban students, teachers, and administrators. Of course, these three ingredients play a critical role in any school setting, but, when it comes to teaching, urban education is the only kind I know. So I want to respond directly to a question raised by a visitor to this blog. She asks, in effect, “What makes a good urban teacher?” The answer requires a context as large as the world these students inhabit.
Whenever someone I know moves to a new locale, I always tell them, “A place is the people you meet.” The scenery, natural and man-made, shapes the landscape, of course, and weather, modes of transportation, jobs, and recreation all impact the experience, but the living–especially in a city–rises and falls with the people with whom you interact. Nowhere is that more evident and problematic than in our urban schools where change is seemingly the only constant upon which one can rely.
My high school has undergone significant staff turnover in each of its six years of operation. In fact, I think only nine of the original crew remain. Some left of their own accord after fulfilling their two year obligation; two retired, and some were removed against their will.
From what my more seasoned colleagues tell me, urban education is almost always a building in flux, especially now. Adults come and go, and professional relationships are difficult to maintain. Tiny pockets of mutual interest do develop based on subject, or age, or classroom proximity, but I do believe a vibrant, cohesive, school-wide culture is often elusive in an urban school. The uncertainty surrounding testing results, teacher tenure, and administrative longevity only contribute to a sense of apprehension.
Fortunately, the cure is never far from sight. As a teacher, you arrive on your first day, receive a room assignment, and then, between meetings explaining the latest building initiatives, you navigate into and out of that room where you will devote nearly all of time and energy. You hang your learning aids and class rules, arrange the desks and areas, and inject life and personality into the place where the work occurs. There is never enough time to review and refine lesson plans, purchase that flowering mum, and imagine fully the year you hope will unfold.
Soon, your students arrive, as hopeful and anxious as you. In most urban schools, they tend to be a homogeneous crowd, at least at first view, but the secret is never to be fooled by the things they share. They are as unique as the people who populate their separate worlds. In fact, the one seal that truly binds them is their profound reliance on those attachments–most of whom you, the teacher, will never actually meet.
These children see themselves in the faces around them more than any other group I have known. Within the building, they lean on one another for sustenance and reassurance. They form their own families and are fiercely loyal and protective. Your role as teacher is not to somehow join that family as a surrogate, but rather to lure its members to some golden destination they may or may not believe they can reach.
You must understand exactly where you are going and why, or they will not follow. You will need a map and sweet inducements for the rough times. You must be willing to take a slight detour or two, as needed, to refuel yourself and your students. You must keep your sense of humor in your pocket at all times, especially when delivering a stern message. You must never conceal your joy in the progress being made and the sights being seen. You must promise yourself you will never take the classroom personally–only the learning taking place within it. This last one is the toughest border to cross.
Lastly, you must recognize that the things they carry with them into your room are often too bulky for the spaces you have provided. Your students are growing not only as scholars, but also as human beings. You are someone they will look to for answers to questions you may never hear, but only sense in their movements, enthusiasms, moodiness, and fears.
If the students are any like the ones I have known, you can expect the usual disruptions of modern life spilling into their work. There will be divorces and separations, the loss of grandparents, uncles, and aunts, the sibling consuming too much attention, the mother’s new, demanding boyfriend, the falling out with friends. There will be parents who are stable, and others who are not. There will be blended families and broken promises, new jobs and sudden layoffs. A few students will seem angry some days for no reason; most will be restless at times.
Like most kids, they will put a brave face on the hunger in their insides. There is more wanting in these schools than America will admit. Strength is a necessity in hard times, and these children are as strong as tungsten rods. Your job is to keep them focused on tomorrow no matter their yesterdays. But you must never be maudlin or patronizing. You are not a missionary, but a teacher. Your job is to prepare them for the world they will enter, not excuse them because of the one they might have left.
There will be those whose ambitions outflank their skills, but you must never tell them that. Instead, emphasize that goals without sweat are daydreams, nothing more. Your job is to strengthen their foundation while you have them and then build upon it as much as you can, as high as you can. Remember you are not alone in this endeavor. There will be teachers after you, and family and loved ones always around. Most will build; a few detract. You cannot control the outcomes of others. Your job is to make your moments count.
If a place really is the people you meet, your job is to be that good place they turn to for solace, growth, and understanding. Teach them like your future depends on it–because it does.