What’s it like to teach in an urban school? Rewarding? Heartbreaking? A little bit of column a and a little bit of column b? Low-income urban school districts are constantly under fire from the government, parents, and community members; teachers leave poor urban schools at a much higher rate than other schools. Today, Charlotte is sharing her experience.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Charlotte and I’m a long-ago mid-western transplant, though I now claim the south. I’m 34 and have been teaching in public schools for five years, but teaching overall closer to nine years. I’ve mostly taught English as a Second Language (ESL), though I did teach Spanish while getting my MA in Spanish Literature. My most favorite thing to do is travel, followed closely by hiking with my husband and pup.
What made you want to be a teacher?
I never wanted to be a teacher! I always wanted to be paid to travel, no matter what that meant. After college I was volunteering with AmeriCorps in southern Colorado, and I took on teaching ESL in the evenings to recent immigrants in addition to working in the food bank and homeless shelter. (I did this, very selfishly, to practice my Spanish.)
The first night in class a man stood up and told his story about why he came to the US and the pride he felt in working hard to send money to his family. It would be the first of many immigration stories that I would hear, and it hit me. Hard. Following that year I moved to Ecuador to teach English as a Foreign Language (EFL) and realized that I was just hooked.
Your school is a ‘title one’ school. What does that mean?
Title I means that a certain (high) percentage of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Using that equation, the government doles out certain amounts of money to Title I schools to be used at their discretion, ostensibly to improve student outcomes.
Off the record, it means that we have a fair amount of students who are living without the basic necessities they need to get through a day, including emotional support at home. Title I schools have to work extra hard to fill in the gaps, but when we are able to, the students soar.
How did you come to teach at your particular school?
I started my public school teaching career in a Title I high school. In our district, which is one of the largest in the nation, the high school in which I taught was tied with another Title I school for highest drop-out rate. I was a lateral entry teacher, which means that I did not get my undergraduate degree in education. I had to take night classes in education while teaching for my first three years. Lateral Entry teachers (in my district, at least) are not permitted to teach in elementary schools.
I made the change to elementary after a particularly difficult day- I had been pushed into a corner by two young men who were fighting, and then locked in a small room with them. It shook me to the realization that I belonged with the younger students, and I really do. It’s a much better fit for my personality.
I think when most people imagine an urban high school, they picture something like ‘Dangerous Minds.’ How far off is that? What are the biggest misconceptions about low-income urban schools?
I can’t stop picturing the perfectly coiffed blonde actress turning the chair around in the music video! The more apt movie comparison is “Freedom Writers.” What that movie showed fairly well was that the kids have issues that are completely beyond their control, and yet they will still show you their soft side if given the chance. My ESL students in the high school setting were tough kids. But they also were raised in refugee camps in Nepal, or saw people die in the desert on their way into the country, or lived through the terrors of Darfur. Thank god they were tough, right? You have to be to get through those things.
The biggest misconceptions about these types of schools, I think, is that the students just don’t care, or that their families just don’t care. My students, the parents of my students? They care so much they were willing to make giant sacrifices just to be there. And that is true for the non-ESL population too. We are all in it together to make the best of what we’ve got, I think.
Do you have friends who teach in higher income school districts? How does your teaching experience compare to theirs?
I do have friends that teach in private schools in our area, and in higher income districts in other parts of the country. The most common comparison that teachers make is that in high-income schools the issues are different: you have parents who are (ahem) overly involved. Every job has its pros and cons.
I will say that a friend of mine is leaving my current school for a non-Title I school for the next school year. I was talking to her about it and she put it pretty perfectly. She said, “I want to know what it is like to have students that come to school to learn, not for love.” Her point is huge: emotional deficits in students are the determining factor in educating a child. No one I work with is going to power through a lesson if a kid is going through something. That would be useless, and the children come first, always.
What does an average work day look like for you?
I live about 45 minutes from my school, so I’m up at 5:30 AM and out the door an hour later. We have to be at school at 7:15 AM, and because I’m not a general education teacher (in elementary, ESL teachers go into classrooms to assist students. We do not have our own classes.) I have a morning duty of opening cars for children as they come inside and an afternoon duty of getting them safely to their parents waiting outside.
At my school, ESL teachers make their own schedules according to where our students are at any given time. I work with kindergarten, first, and second grades so I’m in those classrooms all day. My school, like many Title I schools, is highly transient, so we have new students coming throughout the year.
If they are new to the country, I have to test them for language proficiency within the first ten days. In fact, about 20% of my year is taken up by testing. That works out to 8 months of teaching out of a 10 month school year.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
The all time most challenging aspect of teaching in a Title I school is knowing when you can’t help. People might read that and think, “You should never give up on a child!” When I started teaching, I thought the same. It is a hard pill to swallow, but here’s the issue: you cannot go into people’s homes.
You can’t go home with your students and make sure they have a meal and clean clothes and a bed to sleep in. Don’t get me wrong- if we find out a child has needs at home we do our best to meet them. But we cannot be everything to them, even if they need us to be. And that is really, really difficult to handle some days.
The most rewarding?
The students! It is the absolute best to see these kids every day. And with ESL students, they can come in the beginning of the year not knowing a word of English, and leave conversationally fluent at the end of the year. It is fascinating, and awe-inspiring. It never gets old.
My school is lucky enough to have a lot of quality, veteran teachers and faculty turnover is fairly low comparatively. I was planning on staying at my school long-term, but I received an email a month or so ago from the Human Resources department that let me know I’d been moved to half-time at my school and half-time at a non-Title I school. I’m embracing the change, but my heart hurts a bit to leave my students.
Do you anticipate staying in education long term?
I do anticipate staying in education. My heart leans toward writing but I sincerely believe I’m in the profession that calls me the most. If someone is dying to offer me a travel writing job though, I certainly won’t turn them down!
What can we – the general public who don’t have kids enrolled – do to help struggling public schools?
Vote! And not just for the big stuff. The local government has so much say over what happens in our schools. Please know and understand who you are voting for, and where they stand on education. And also, you may have kids that have other choices in where they go to school, for whatever reason. But please also think about the families that don’t. And vote. Vote!
What have you learned from your work that any of us could apply to our daily lives?
Read to your children. Let them read to you. And if you don’t have children yourself, you probably know one or two. (They are everywhere.) Read to them.
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