Posted April 4th 2011 at 4:01 pm by
in First Person Policy

A Week In the Life of an American Inner-city School Teacher

It started Monday morning when the principal announced that a 16-year-old student in our academy had been shot and killed on Sunday night.  Counselors were made available, but those close to the boy struggled the whole week. On Friday they wore red sweatshirts with “R.I.P. Steven” and his vibrant, smiling face emblazoned across the front.  It was unclear how kids were processing his death, but the halls felt different.

My ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students, removed from the American community, were dealing with their own horror.  A bunch of them had been waiting at the bus stop Monday morning when a little boy tried crossing a busy, 6-lane street and was killed in a gruesome accident.  There was no crossing guard present.

Another student, also in my 3rd period ESOL class, was absent again — a bright Nepali boy who was badly beaten on the bus on his way home from school last December.  This is pretty common, as American students see the ESOL students as easy targets, banking them and then stealing their MP3 players, cell phones, et cetera.  He is among a handful of male Nepali students who simply cannot take the threats, harassment, and fear anymore and are functioning on very short fuses.  They’re great hand-to-hand fighters, but Americans don’t fight one-on-one, so if you dare to defend yourself, you’re taking on 3 to 6 other guys.  He needs counseling, a safe ride to and from school, and lots of support.

One of the Nepali students lost it at my door today.  He was not allowed to enter (I was doing federally-mandated testing) and he took the rejection personally.  No doubt there was body language from the Latino student on my side of the door, but when another Nepali student let the boy in, he attacked with rapid-fire, landing a bevy of hits to the Latino student’s face.  By that time, I was up and across the room and clutching him from behind so he couldn’t throw any more punches.  (The last time I did this, it was a much bigger kid who flipped me head over heels, with me falling sprawled out on the floor, joining three other students fighting for an advantage from their prone position.  Meanwhile their target, who was just trying to protect his face, was getting kicked from the lone man standing.  Four-on-one — not good!)

But, back to today.  This kid, with incredible adrenaline driving him, was smaller, and I was able to keep him in one hold for a while. When he broke that, I was able to again restrain him with another hold using my legs.  (It’s a shame we’re not taught wrestling in the Education curriculum.)  Two school police officers finally arrived and relieved me of “control”.  After about 10 minutes of explaining, I was able to get back to testing while the two combatants hung out in my room, in their different camps … peacefully!

In these situations, I’ve learned it’s important to be cool. I did my best to hide my shaking (we were struggling on the floor for a long time), and I avoided rubbing my head, which took a hit from a desk as we were going down.  And, I don’t know why — if it was the rush of emotion or what — but I had to fight back tears as I was explaining what happened to the two police officers.  I totally understood why the Nepali student went off, and I was incredibly proud of the Latino student who chose not to fight back (even after getting hit hard in the face).  Instead, he focused on dodging the repeated lunges and punches.  This kid had just had a terrible experience with the ‘listening’ portion of a federal test, not understanding anything, and I’m sure he was feeling totally stupid.  So, I have one student at his wit’s end due to daily verbal and physical threats and another struggling with his sense of self after suffering complete humiliation.  Ugh!  This is not what childhood or adolescence is supposed to be about.

And, was that enough for a day?  A week?

Less than an hour later, another student needed emergency attention — a developmentally-delayed Kenyan student, a very big kid who has been beaten, kicked, and pushed down many, many times because he’s always smiling. When the American students tell him to stop, he just smiles more, unable to verbalize anything, while the American students interpret his silence and smile as an insult, and thus beat and kick him all the more.  After dealing with this reality for the past 4 or 5 months, this very sweet kid has begun acting out, and given his size, he can do a lot of damage quickly.

Anyway, as I was trying to explain the roots of the earlier fight to my science class, two girls jumped up and ran across the room screaming.  I looked at the boy who was sitting next to them, and he looked possessed: eyes wide-open, fists clenched and shaking, unblinking eyes, red and watering like in intense anger. “Had he been laughed at, made fun of?” I thought. “Did the discussion trigger something?”  Then, I realized he couldn’t understand any of the conversation; he was having a seizure.  The most intense part lasted about 5 minutes.  Despite his wide-open eyes, he saw nothing, heard nothing; he just sat there and shook.

As soon as I realized what was happening, I asked a student to run across the hall and have a teacher call a nurse while I stood next to him rubbing his back, not sure if he was about to explode or not.  Again, the wait.  It took more than 10 minutes for the nurse to arrive.  She was alone in the clinic and couldn’t leave until her assistant came back.  So, my earlier lesson plan that centered on nutrition morphed into an explanation of the school’s layers of racial oppression and then to first aid and seizures.

To top it off, as I was driving home from work on Thursday, I passed a cop car blocking off a street with yellow crime-tape sealing the entry to an apartment project behind him.  This killing added to another one in a shopping center parking lot on Tuesday, on top of the little boy’s death Monday, all of them within a half-mile radius of each other.

This was not a normal week RE: murders, but it was entirely normal regarding violence.  It’s epidemic, and these kids have no tools to defend themselves or process the context.

The information needed, the thinking required, the empathy plumbed, cannot be wrung out of standardized test prep.  I wish we could wait for a superman — like that might be a possibility — but instead opportunist right-wing politicians attack teachers’ laziness, incompetence, and greed while the center (Obama, Duncan, and Democrats in general) hide behind the authority of their podiums and comfort themselves with finely-crafted visits to the hinterlands seemingly ignorant and uncaring about the realities of inner-city America.  A 3-year funding stream of “Race to the Top” can’t make any kind of difference when school systems nation-wide are laying off tens of thousands of teachers.  Part of me wonders if the ‘big’ bourgeoisie prefers to write-off the inner-city as a rotten core of superfluous workers.  And, instead of investing in its development, is comfortable sitting back letting the young males kill each other off, avoiding the high costs of incarceration.

Yes, we have teachers who are tired, burned-out, and shouldn’t be in the classroom, but I am heartened daily to see the efforts of many more of my peers, who come back day after day trying something new to reach their students.  More often than not disappointments outnumber achievements, but when things click, they’re injected with a new dose of hope with dreams, perhaps not unlike our hopes for the baseball teams that opened this week. (A new teacher across the hall celebrated her last period class because they totally got into new census statistics and the concept of affirmative action.)

We could be better in so many ways, but the problems are so huge! From the isolation of our classrooms, lacking technology, heat (for three weeks my classroom hovered between 58 and 62), and AC (with room temps going over 100 in May, June, August, and September) to the implosion of the inner cities, there’s no quick fix.  But, if there are solutions or improvements to be made, teachers have to be a part of the process.  There are too many things wrong, too many players that have to be engaged. The ‘reformers’ have to be more than the billionaire grant-givers who know nothing of these realities and don’t bother to research them. There is no Superman!

Tom Smith sent this letter to his friends after a hard week and subsequently agreed to publish it on CoLab Radio.

2 responses to “A Week In the Life of an American Inner-city School Teacher”

  1. Christina says:

    Tom, I truly believe that you have the most important and hardest job in the world, and I agree that real proof of caring about cities comes from making real and substantial investments in the kids, teachers, and schools in those cities.

    I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and in my mid-twenties I began working on a project that required me to visit schools all over the city and surrounding area. The realization from this work hit me like a punch in the face: all the years I spent growing up and hearing about crime and violence in the city, what did society expect? Were people really struggling to figure out what the problem could be and how it could be addressed? The state and politicians had totally turned their backs on the inner city schools and the students inside of them. Many of them were exactly as you described: no AC, no heat, no technology, very limited resources all around, with huge drug, violence and crime issues. The teachers were struggling and working their butts off to teach, keep order, and provide interesting learning experiences for their students. And it felt like all of society was totally blind to their needs and daily struggles.

    At that job we would hold workshops at other schools in the suburbs and many of the Detroit kids couldn’t believe what they were seeing: large gymnasiums and pools, televisions and computers in classrooms, great outdoor space and cafeterias. These schools were a 15 minute drive from Detroit. The disparities were astonishing even to the youngest students.

    Thank you for sharing your story, and for everything you do every day to help the kids you teach. Your story is a wake up call that it’s time for leaders and tax payers to get real and do something to support educators like yourself.

  2. Alexa Mills says:

    One CoLab Radio reader told me this week that this was the best post she’d ever read on the site. I used to be a victim advocate in the domestic violence unit of a city courthouse, and I’d see horrors every day. A lot of times, the only thing that got me through the day was telling myself that at least I knew the truth. At least I understood a system that no one else did. Thank you for sharing this important truth with us.