From 2013-2014, I visited high school English classes across the socioeconomic spectrum in Los Angeles in an attempt to understand what makes a great teacher and what we mean when we say “education.” This is one of the most important lessons I learned: that we need a new language to talk about poverty.
I recently worked with three groups of 8th and 9th grade students. All of the groups are comprised of students of color from families in poverty, which means they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under a California program whose cutoff is for a family of four is an income of under $30,615 (free), or under $43,568 (reduced-price). Students from families like these who qualify for free and reduced lunch are generally the students we talk about when we talk about children in poverty.
My three student groups all meet this criterion. In addition, they all are highly motivated and academically proficient, with supportive parents who have enrolled them in an after-school college-prep enrichment program. They must all be alike, right?
Wrong. Continue reading What I Learned In School
Boxes crowd the hallways, moving in and moving out. I’m in an empty office at Animo Phillis Wheatley Middle School in South L.A. talking to Principal Nat Pickering, who has resigned after three years so that he can go back to being a teacher. Back when I was teaching, I worked with him; he was a history teacher for years before he became Assistant Principal of our school. I will forever be indebted to Nat, who despite being insanely busy, voluntarily met with me two or three times a month to coach me on the plethora of problems I was having in my various classes; he helped me shape my curriculum, talked me through issues with students and, more times than I can count, simply listened to me venting. Continue reading Why A Great Principal Burned Out – And What Might Have Helped
I once had a student who was on crack. It was a nightmare. Before he’d spun out into addiction, Jorge had been one of the most talented students I’d ever had in my Drama class, with the inspired, all-out brilliance and timing of a comedic pro. But crack turned him nasty and out of control. He’d bounce into my class hopped up, sweaty, eyes glinting with rage; we, his teachers, sent each other frantic emails about him. We did an intervention. We called in his weeping, desperate mother, who begged him to get help. Nothing worked. Jorge, a kid who’d once loved my class so much that on facebook during winter break he’d counted down the days till Drama class, now stared me down every day with simmering, unsettling animosity. He took to harassing other students and one day, after calling me a bitch, he lobbed the n-bomb at one of the girls
I lost it. I actually only dimly recall what happened next. I’m sure I didn’t actually drag him by the collar into the hall, but that’s what I remember. All I know for sure is that a friend of mine who taught several doors down said that she could hear me yelling at him even with her door shut. When finished, I was shaking. He wouldn’t make eye contact and walked out of school, disappearing for the rest of the day.
All I could think was: I am a terrible teacher. Continue reading Are You a Bad Teacher?
They drove me nuts. Smart, chatty, gregarious, popular, Gerardo and Katia talked incessantly to the people around them in class, a river of disengaged, casual gossip that stopped flowing only when I stood next to them glaring with all my powers, and even then sometimes they wouldn’t stop.
They did no work.
Gerardo and Katia, for all their considerable charm, did not do work no matter how much you begged, called home, commiserated or threatened. They did no work in spite of the fact that they were extremely intelligent—Gerardo was one of the highest-testing kids in the school–and extremely courageous; they were the first students to come out at our school, starting a gay-straight alliance and supporting their younger LGBT classmates. Though if asked, Gerardo and Katia would say that they did no work because they were lazy, in fact their refusal to do work was more like Bartleby’s existential “I would prefer not to,” a renunciation of all that we begged them to believe about themselves and about the world. Continue reading Four Years Later–Part II