My school district just completed the annual testing cycle for middle and elementary school students. Normally I work much more closely with teachers than students, buy every year I get the opportunity to administer tests to small groups of special education students. This year my testing group was composed of 8th grade boys whose behavior is, to put it kindly, challenging for some of their teachers. Their behavior was challenging for me as well. These boys like to play at being tough. They like to curse, fight, and try to use intimidation to work their way out of classwork or anything else that might reveal their insecurities about school.
They tried some of that on me this week. A few of the boys know me because they’ve been attending the alternative school where I’ve work for the past few years. They get that I’m usually soft spoken, know that I’m fair in what I expect from them, and they also know where I draw the line when it comes to unproductive classroom/school behavior. These boys didn’t give me much trouble. Some of the boys know me because I’ve done model lessons in their classrooms at various points during the school year. They know that I know my content, that I am interested in what they have to say and that I am interested in what they think about the content. They also know that I can have the patience of a zen master with them…when exhibiting that patience is helpful in accomplishing our shared goals.
And then there were the students who did not know me very well before testing. These are the students who felt it necessary to test me…to see what my buttons were and if they could push them, and me, to the point of anger or frustration. 3 years ago, I would have taken the behavior that these few students exhibited (cursing, fabricated fantasy tales of “street life”, attempts to leave the room, etc.) as a sign of disrespect. I would have gotten angry, called an administrator, and I would have had them removed from my testing environment.
However, 3 years in an alternative school has taught me that that isn’t the way to deal with children who are testing their boundaries in a manner that educators who either come from the middle class or who have adopted a middle class outlook on life would find objectionable. All kids test their boundaries. My two year old does it every time she tries to go into the street by herself. She won’t learn what those boundaries are if I fail to understand that all she is trying to do is find her place in the world. If I sent her to the “naughty spot” every time she did something that she shouldn’t do, she would spend more time in timeout than she would learning. A more productive way to address her transgressions is to explain to her why she should, or shouldn’t do something. I teach her instead of punish her.I now take the same approach with students who use disruptive classroom behavior as a tool to see what they can, and can’t do.
The student who decided that it would be a good idea to be disruptive wanted to leave the testing environment while other students were still testing. I told him no. A few minutes later her asked to go to the bathroom. I told him no and added that I know he didn’t need to use the bathroom and that I knew he would say anything to get out of the classroom. He began cursing. I took his cursing as a request for attention…and I told him so. I told him that if this is about him getting attention then he had my undivided attention. I asked him what he would like to talk about. He took what I said as a sign of disrespect and began going on a rant about how he gets all the attention he needs from his lady friends in the streets (my words, not his). He also shared several tough guy stories with me.
Instead of getting angry, I decided to ask questions. Every time he claimed to have done something outrageous “in the streets” I asked for more detail. I didn’t get flustered. I paid attention to what he said and when his stories didn’t match, I asked him to clarify himself. I admit, my tone was sarcastic and a little bit antagonistic, things that seasoned educators will tell you not to do with belligerent teenagers, but I was walking a very fine line with this kid. I did not want him to lose face or feel disrespected by me. I also did not want him to be removed from the testing environment or for him to see me as someone who would rather not deal with him. I also wasn’t willing to lose this particular fight because it would have set the tone for all of our future interactions. The code by which these young men live is the same code by which I lived during my formative years. You can’t run from certain challenges and expect to be respected. Neither of us could budge. As I write this down, it seems silly to have engaged in this conversation with the student when it would have been easier to have him removed. But I didn’t want him to be removed. I wanted him to see me as an ally rather than an adversary…and sparring with him, as it were, was the best option I had in this situation. My choice was certainly unconventional…but I felt like it would work…with him.
In the end, the young man in question relented. He stopped telling his tales, stopped trying to bluff me into believing he was a tough guy, and was able to remain in the classroom with me. More importantly, I showed him…in an admittedly unorthodox way…that I would not quit on him, or on his education. Eventually we began discussing why he is attending the alternative school, what he can do to help himself leave this program, and the positive things that he does outside of school. We began to speak with one another about the things that mattered. The other boys, who remained quiet during the “street fair tale” portion of the exchange, began to chime in, asking questions about what they can do to get out of the alternative school. A potentially explosive negative situation was diffused by conversation. I chalked 1 up in the win column for both myself and the formerly disruptive student that day.
The young man in question had to be escorted to the testing location the following day because he chose to walk the halls for a little while. Rome wasn’t built in a day and I didn’t expect his behavior to change after one conversation with me either. However, after he and the other boys finished their tests I noticed them do something that I hadn’t seen them do all week long…they acted like kids. They talked about cartoons and video games. They wanted to see which of them could spin around in their chairs the longest. They asked if they could play some of the board games that were in the room where we tested. They laughed. They smiled. Our “come to Jesus meeting” the day before gave them permission to drop the tough guy facades and just be kids.
Sometimes it’s easier to accept the tough guy front that students put up than it is to see them as who they really are, insecure kids trying to test the boundaries of their world. Their way of figuring out what’s ok and what isn’t is dangerous…for them. Their skin color, style of dress, language, and their zip code are used by people who choose not to see their humanity as an excuse to write them off as a loss. The school to prison pipeline is a very real threat for these boys, and some of their teachers play a significant role in directing them to prison by seeing, and treating them, as thugs, rather than as kids for whom the world is a big…and hostile place.
Teaching in the hood is hard work. It demands that you be equipped to deal with your students’ social, emotional, and academic issues equally. It demands that you see students whose way of expressing insecurity might disrupt your classroom…until you put some effort into building a rapport with them. It demands that you care about far more than grade distributions, test scores, curriculum, and instruction. Teaching in the hood requires zen-like patience, nearly unlimited stores of empathy, superior content knowledge, and a willingness to drop everything and deal with a kid…or a class that may be in crisis to name a few necessary qualities for the effective inner city educator.
And no, I’m not giving kids a pass to behave recklessly because their lives may be hard. There are plenty of examples of successful people who made it out of the hood or who were model students and citizens in spite of their surroundings. Those people were often very lucky because the mixture of a support system and access to certain opportunities allowed them to change their lives in spite of the proverbial deck being stacked against them. I know because I am an example of one of those people. So is my mother. We worked hard, but we were also incredibly lucky. A lot of kids don’t have the support systems or access to the opportunities that we had, so they need teachers who can provide equal amounts of empathy, discipline, and love to help them deal with the challenges they face outside of school. If a classroom teacher (Who is essentially one of a child’s primary caregivers) cannot invest the time to try to get to the root of WHY students may be acting out…should that person be working with those kids in the first place? Can a person who won’t take the time to try to figure out why a kid is cursing in class, fighting, or who skips class actually do anything to influence a change in a students’ unproductive behavior?
I don’t think so. And I don’t think that people who see our kids as nothing more than disruptive thugs deserve to receive a paycheck for working with them, Black, White, Asian, etc. So, ask yourself, should YOU be teaching in the hood? If the answer is no, that doesn’t make you a bad teacher…or a bad person. Each of us has to decide what we want for ourselves. Find another teaching job. Work with kids whose world view matches your own, but be aware that American public schools are becoming incredibly diverse places, and you might have to do some self-reflection very soon in order to be able to teach in a classroom where students’ experiences are not like your own.
However, if you know you’re bad for kids in the hood and you continue to work there, then yes, you’re a bad teacher. And a bad person.