It’s not quite dark on Sunday evening, but I’ve already finished all my planning, copying, grading, and data tracking for tomorrow. This is a very novel experience, even as a second-year teacher, so I’m a little disoriented. I guess I’ll use this time to share two stories from last week, one negative and one positive, that exemplify some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately.
IR is a student in my 6-7 Algebra 1 block. I have significant management issues with that entire block, but IR is in a league of his own. He has been absent or suspended about half the semester so far, and on the days he’s been in, he has exhibited behavior ranging from refusing to do any work despite literally every management and motivational strategy in my teacher toolkit, to racist remarks directed at me (e.g. calling me “chino” repeatedly while I’m teaching), to tearing up and throwing away handouts, to walking up to classmates and punching them—hard. To put it euphemistically, IR has difficulty in a traditional classroom setting. (To put it not-so-euphemistically, IR has a 2.9% in the class and would probably be in the red, if that were possible.) Indeed, more than any other student I’ve ever taught, IR has challenged my ability to use asset-based thinking (one of the “diversity competencies” that TFA tries to drill into our heads at Institute), and though I hate to admit it, I’m often relieved when he doesn’t show up for class.
Last week, after a particularly rough 6-7 block, Ms. T (my mentor teacher) volunteered to ask around about IR’s home life / living situation. What she learned shocked me, which is no small feat after my two years in the inner-city. It turns out that IR’s father isn’t around, and his mother is a drug addict; he lives with his grandmother, who works from 11 am to 11 pm in Boston (an hour-long commute); and he is the primary caretaker for two younger siblings, whom he has to cook for every day before and after school. She also found out that he recently applied to an alternative school in Providence but was rejected, probably because he hasn’t passed a single class in high school. As Ms. T, a veteran inner-city teacher of 20+ years, handed me the piece of paper detailing the above information, all she could do was shake her head and look at me sadly.
To be clear, none of these out-of-school factors excuse IR’s destructive behavior, but they certainly put it in context—a context in blindingly stark contrast to my own. I can’t even begin to fathom what it’s like to be the primary caretaker of two children at the age of sixteen, especially without a strong parental model to follow. I also can’t fathom how discouraging it must be for academic success to be so elusive and unfamiliar that it’s not even worth pursuing. There are less than two months left in the school year, and honestly, I don’t know if I can make a turnaround with IR (though I’ll certainly try). I still believe teachers can transform students’ lives, because I’ve seen it happen—at my school and elsewhere. But I no longer believe that poverty and other external factors don’t matter for students like IR—such arguments are naive at best, malicious at worst.
I haven’t written much about DR on this blog, which is surprising given that he’s probably the student I interact with most on a weekly basis. DR is the one who wrote “I love Jesus” on his class survey from my very first day of teaching (almost two years ago!); since then, I have taught him in Algebra 2, served as his senior mentor, written him a recommendation letter for Valley Forge Christian College (where he’ll be studying music ministry next year), and most recently, co-founded an after-school music club with him. As you might imagine, we’re very close—we share successes and struggles from our lives with each other, and DR is one of only three students I’ve told so far about leaving next year.
Over spring break, somewhat on a whim, I asked DR if I could visit his home sometime, since we would both be leaving Providence soon. He and his family graciously agreed and invited me over for dinner last Monday. The visit started off a bit awkward, with DR’s mother and me trying to have a conversation by the door in broken Spanish/English (while DR was nowhere to be found), but things got much better as the evening went on. I got a chance to meet DR’s older sister and two older brothers; listen to the story of how and why the family immigrated from the Dominican Republic to New York City and then to Providence; and express my overflowing appreciation for DR’s mother’s delicious homemade food. (She made spaghetti con camarones, plátanos fritos, and ensalada verde. I don’t think I’ve eaten so much spaghetti in my life.)
After dinner, DR’s family and I sat around the living room table and talked for hours. It’s hard to describe the conversation in detail because it touched on a million different topics, so suffice it to say that by the end, I had a much better understanding of the loving environment DR had grown up in, and the dreams that his mother and siblings have for him. There was one especially memorable point in the conversation: when I asked how the family had become Christian, everyone pointed to DR—evidently, despite being the youngest child, he had convinced everyone to follow him to church a few years ago, and they’ve been doing so ever since. I almost cried. I may have actually shed a tear. Shh.
The visit was definitely one of the most fun experiences I’ve had in the past two years, but it also solidified two truths for me: (1) some of my students do in fact have supportive home environments that can be leveraged to push them to achieve success (whatever success means to them and their families), and (2) students are such fascinating and colorful individuals outside the classroom that teachers do themselves a disservice by not learning more about their passions and interests and relationships, about what drives them and makes them tick.
It was also encouraging just to be reminded that despite how mediocre I feel as a teacher sometimes, there are a few students (DR especially, but others as well) whose lives I have genuinely touched through my love, faith, and commitment to being myself at all times. As I’ve mentioned before, Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 15:58 is so relevant to this work: “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Labor that is not in vain—as an educator, no words could be sweeter.
This entry ended up being much more reflective than I had originally intended. Hopefully that makes up for my lack of blogging over the last month. Onward to the last seven weeks of the year!