8 lessons from 8 years of teaching in the inner city

in no particular order:

1.  love isn’t just being nice, its being firm  

i’m not one to rock the boat or make people uncomfortable because I don’t like it much myself…but it took being a teacher in the inner city to teach me that love that is deep must discipline.  to love must move beyond wanting the others temporary comfort towards genuinely wanting their long term best.  students i’ve talked to have shared with me that they may have fun with a person that doesn’t discipline but, students actually respect a person who brings order and holds them accountable to a higher standard.

2.  don’t raise your voice…it only makes others raise theirs

it was so shocking for me to see how a class / a student would mirror my own attitude…no matter how much i tried to mask it.  its uncanny, more often than not, if i was happy they’d be happy, if i was frustrated they’d be frustrated, if i yelled they would yell. i learned not to teach “over” my class…if they weren’t listening, becoming silent was much more effective in getting their attention then me fretting for it.  likewise, it was hard not to take things personally when my students came at me with an angry attitude…there was often something unrelated to me that had happened to them in their lives or even earlier in the same day.  i needed to give them the same benefit of the doubt that i would want them to give to me on an off day/period.

3. respect can’t be assumed by position, it must be earned by relationship

I was raised to respect people in positions of authority regardless of whether I liked them or not.  This is not the case with everyone.  Some may have been raised with that value too but have changed by having been burned in life, especially by those in positions of authority that have abused their trust.  With this in mind, I have learned that an important part of my work, if not more important than the work itself, is to work on building up relationships…to keep my eye out for opportunities to acknowledge, encourage, and praise no matter how small the step.  Otherwise they will continue to think I am against them…and so would I.  A single kind word or gesture went so much further than my multiple commands.

4.  sharing a little about your private life can have surprisingly good results

so one day in this crazy period of mine the topic of sex came up.  Naturally, (haha) the kids asked about my sex life.  I told them I was a virgin and was planning on remaining so until I married my wife.  The class erupted in screaming like I had dropped my pants or a bomb in class.  After that my students gave me the most focused and diligent amount of independent work I had ever had from them.  I was so puzzled and still haven’t quite figured this out.  Ok, aside from the fact that my position was so unbelievable (and hilarious) to them, I think they, oddly enough, felt closer to me for some reason…through this awkward revelation.  I’m not saying that people should go telling everyone their “bizness” but I really saw this paradoxical principle that being vulnerable, even for a moment, can disarm others.

5.  its not about the money, its about how the money is managed

I observed quickly that lack of money wasn’t the main problem in the inner city school…in fact i was surprised by how much there actually was (well before the u.s. budget crisis anyway).  i was appalled with how that money was used.  there were a lot of back dealings with senior faculty and staff, HUGE amounts of money laid down for whole sets of books and supplies that we didn’t need nor were discussed with staff.   for example, one weekend the admin decided to buy new student tables and chairs for the WHOLE school (several tens of thousands of dollars), without so much as a consultation or warning to staff.  we just arrived on monday and all the student desks were changed…with desks that were worse than the ones we had before!  they were so awkwardly shaped they couldn’t be used for group work or hold student materials.  as co-department chair we would order the books we needed….months would pass until our students needed their books and we still had nothing.  we’d go to the billings person and they would be like “what order?”  then they would fish through all their papers and find our order form at the bottom of some random stack…while everything for her drill team was ordered right on time.  this was typical before the charter conversion.  good stewardship is so rare.

6.  neglect breeds more neglect

when you work so hard for such a long time at something it is so discouraging to see no change…the same chaos repeated over and over again.  everyday the painters would come to clean up the graffiti…and everyday more graffiti would go up.   new teachers would come in full of passion and leave worn out.   some students would come to class, hundreds of students would ditch class.  it often made us feel like just giving up…like “no matter what we try it doesn’t seem to change anything…so whats the use?”   but one must not give in to the despair they see around them…it makes mediocrity the standard and inhumanity the norm.  the broken window theory really does happen, even amongst professionals…its contagious.   fortunately, the reverse is also true…if you are rooted in a hope deeper than your circumstances, then your faithfulness with the little things now will be unshaken leading to greater fruit in the future.

7.  it takes a village to raise a child

sure one might make an impact as an individual teacher, but what I may have instilled in them might all be undone in the next period that they go to.  or outside the class.  or on the streets.  or at home.  however, through the privilege of experiencing a school conversion with an amazing charter school team, I have learned that when a whole staff (and whatever family members we can get involved) can be on the same page and have a united front, it begins to actually change a sub-culture.   Thanks to Animo Locke II Charter High School for showing me a glimpse of the possibilities when caring and committed people come together.

8. God is the only one who can be with you always in the classroom (and beyond)

that first year of teaching, was truly like walking though “the valley of the shadow of death”.  not only was the pace of work like nothing i had experienced in my life up to that point, the students would fight me to my face – cursing, pushing, standing on top of desks.  the guy who would oversleep for his 11am classes was now up at 5am in the morning with no alarm in a cold sweat and overwhelmed with fear…i would have to face those students…again.  I got my first grey hair, i was losing weight. my friends and family would listen to me kindly, but I’d have to return to my classroom…alone…to a class full of volatile students.  this made me so desperate for God.  who else, would not only know completely what was happening, but be with me any time?  who else could give me the inspiration and motivation to keep on?  Who else could give me peace?  Even after several years of teaching, when a student blatantly disrespects me and bites the hand that is feeding them, God is the only one who could enable me to respond with kindness.  it is only natural to respond to negativity with negativity, it is supernatural to respond with love.  I have only found the source of such crazy love with God.

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4 thoughts on “8 lessons from 8 years of teaching in the inner city”

  1. awesome and very true words DK!! We’ll miss you so don’t stay away for long- come back and see your kids perform as sophomores this year! I think we’re doing a Christmas play, and it would be awesome to see you there! Praying for your new position and chapter in your life!

  2. You’ve persevered through quite a journey. I often could sense how there was so much on your heart that really can only be understood by other people who are in the same position… and even then, it’s so true that you alone were the one who went back to that classroom day after day. So thankful that God was and is Emmanuel to you.

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