“We've all seen a man at the liquor store beggin' for your change
The hair on his face is dirty, dread-locked, and full of mange
He asks a man for what he could spare, with shame in his eyes
"Get a job, you f***ing slob, " is all he replies
God forbid, you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes
'Cause then you really might know what it's like to sing the blues
Then you really might know what it's like
Then you really might know what it's like
Then you really might know what it's like
Then you really might know what it's like”
This post is dedicated to all the teachers who KEEP TRYING to make a difference against all odds, and all the administrators who UNDERSTAND.
But most of all, this post is dedicated to all the students, most of which will never read this, who fall through the cracks of the educational system that focuses on rhetoric to distract from the hard truths.
I want you to know that there are teachers, counselors, deans, assistant, and lead principals out there who get it and want to help. I want you to know that we know that you often do not trust us and that we will work hard to gain your trust and expect nothing and everything in return.
Also, we know that you often go hungry and that school is the only place you get stable meals and that when you come home the fridge will be empty.
We know that where you live is unsafe; kids get jumped getting off the bus or walking home; their shoes or nice jackets get taken by force; and their backpacks, phones, and dignity are stolen by those with more power.
We know that some of you don’t have a place you can or want to call home.
WE ALSO KNOW LEARNING IS HARD, MAYBE IMPOSSIBLE, WHEN YOU ARE HUNGRY, COLD, THREATENED, AND CONSTANTLY BEAT DOWN BY THE EVIL AROUND YOU.
I want you to know that we are angry these things are happening to you, but we don’t always know WHEN. We want to know. We need to know. YOU ARE THAT IMPORTANT TO US.
The statement educators are trained to say and believe goes something like “Every student can learn.” I agree with it from the perspective that every student has the brainpower necessary to learn. But, do the administrators who utter those words accept that not all students are READY to learn? And if they are not READY to learn I believe they CANNOT learn. I know that is a controversial statement - a hard pill to swallow for many principals - but it is true.
Let me bring up a story from a few years ago, that just came to me. It must have been a warm mid to late May day that I took my class outside to test the solar ovens students built by using them to melt cheese for nachos. A few boys and I decided to toss a football around (okay it was a Gatorade bottle- close enough right?). At some point, one of the throws fell somewhat in the middle of where myself and a few students stood. Brian and I rushed toward the “ball” and as we got down low to grab the fumble we clashed heads. He was left with a huge bump on his head he’d be embarrassed about for the next few days. I was bleeding. Apparently, the school ID hung around my neck was somehow tossed up and slashed the side of my temple. Awesomely, Geno gave me his extra white T-shirt to put pressure on the cut. A half an hour and 7 staples later I am being driven back to school by one of the APs and somehow the conversation we’re having is about student learning.
You see, I teach in a fairly diverse middle class public high school in a suburb of the Twin Cities, but am myself a product of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). I also spent 4 years teaching in CPS and 2 years in an alternative junior high school in St. Paul Public Schools.
The AP I’m driving in the car with, let’s call him Rod, is a super nice guy who cares about students and is good at his job. In fact, he became a lead principal in another district 2 years ago. But Rod was visibly uncomfortable with what I was saying. He got stiff and would not pick up the theme as I made my claim that there are many students in urban districts, even our middle class one, for whom education simply cannot be very high on the list of priorities as their basic needs are not being met on a day to day basis. Right here, right now.
So I continue my monologue, while he nods in silence, that social/emotional services in education, our district included, are constantly being slashed and students have fewer properly-trained adults they can turn to for help. I realize that while Rod had considerable power to affect things in my building he hasn’t nearly as much influence at the district level. But I am just expressing my frustration, right?
It is what it is…. And we do what we can.
So what can we do?
We never keep the ball and try to score ourselves. We pass the ball to the students. Let them make their own decisions. Because they need to feel they are in control. But they can’t be. They were placed right in the middle of an impossible situation by those who gave them life; those who were probably placed in the same environment, in the same way, before them, by those who made them be. So we do whatever we can, whatever we must, to help our students get what they need. They need safety. We try to provide it. They need sustenance. And between the hours of 8am and 3pm we give it.
They need education to have a chance at rising out of the messed up circumstances they find themselves in. They are kids, but don’t get to be kids when they leave school, because out there it’s the survival of the fittest: Grand Theft Auto without the cool factor. ‘Cause life ain’t no game. So they get to “chill” at school. And we do our best to give them as many tools as they can to survive. If they can move past survival we try to help them learn concepts and skills they’ll need for a brighter future. Maybe take the ACT. Do well enough to get into a college. Be poor enough to get financial aid. Find a tribe that takes them in. Succeed.
THIS IS THE SYSTEM FOR THOUSANDS OF STUDENTS IN THIS COUNTRY. Every large city has such schools; sometimes many such schools. There are rural areas in this country that live their own socio-educational nightmares too. Many, if not most, “well to do” schools have students who face harsh reality and hard to imagine adversity every day. What am I talking about? Hunger, Fear, Marginalization, Violence, Drugs, Rape, Dehumanization, Death.
“The teacher stands in front of the class
But the lesson plan he can't recall
The student's eyes don't perceive the lies
Bouncing off every f***ing wall
His composure is well kept
I guess he fears playing the fool
The complacent students sit and listen to some of that
Bullshit that he learned in school”
- Zach de la Rocha, Rage Against The Machine
We are slowly moving away from the eurocentrism that permeates American schools, but what we preach is still “bullshit” to those fighting for survival. They have no use for it at the moment and we have to change that first.
Never leave the ball in your hands. Always put it in theirs. And do not pretend all is well. You can be like Rod and pretend all students go to a warm home, their parents there to greet them, to serve up a two course meal, and watch favorite b-ball team on the tube together. But if you want to make a difference, you face up to reality. You talk about it openly with those around you. You pass the ball, but you stay on HIS SIDE the court. You assist. Throw a pick if need be. You see, many educators are unconsciously (which fills me with hope) or knowingly (which is disturbing to say the least) playing on the opposite team. And that’s precisely the problem.
ALL EDUCATORS HAVE TO REALIZE THAT NO MATTER HOW WE SEE OUR STUDENTS AND THEIR BEHAVIORS WE ARE ONE TEAM. DYSFUNCTIONAL? OFTEN. BUT WE MUST KEEP PLAYING AS A TEAM TO IMPROVE OUR ODDS.
So next time you see your teammate who's struggling be honest with him. Recognize him. Meet him where he’s at. Ask him what you can do. Support him. Pick him up when he’s down.
If you do that, you can never fault yourself for not trying to win the game.
The educational system is slowly changing, but for some kids the changes we tend to focus on are not enough. Many powers that be still see equality as treating all students the same. Many individuals in this country still see attempts at equity as unfair. Many try, but grossly misunderstand and prove their inadequacy through images such as the one below.
They were given boxes by the cartoon creator, but brown-skinned dad and kids are still behind the fence watching the game as if they did not belong on the other side for whatever reason.
I'd love to read your opinions of the issues I raised in this article in the comments below. Thank you for taking the time to read and please share this post with other educators. If you appreciated this post, consider signing up for my NEWSLETTER to receive more articles, infographics, and poems on education.
Remember: You have the power to create magic and change the world. Use it often.