I have been an urban teacher for my entire 6 years teaching. I have always worked at a school with over 90% of kids on free or reduced lunch. I have always worked at schools that are classified as underperforming. I have always worked in a school where kids face challenges that no child should face. They face issues of poverty, violence, family issues, gangs, absent parents due to death or incarceration, and they live in an access and resource desert. Then we as their teachers face them. We face them and ask them to focus, to learn, to achieve and to grow. I have been thinking a lot lately about ideas and activities teachers are discussing on twitter. I have been thinking about how those things work in different settings. I have been thinking about what is the same for all kids? And what is different for urban kids? I am not talking about funding of schools, or political decisions about promotion or test scores. I am thinking about the make up of our children and how they are universal and also unique. I don’t know the answers because I only know one setting. But I wonder about it. I wonder how we can make it better.
I viewed an amazing documentary this week with some fellow teachers called The Interrupters. The Interrupters trailer gives the premise of the doc, and how the members of CeaseFire in Chicago are working to interrupt violence in the communities that are hotbeds for violence. The one idea that was presented over and over by the violence interrupters and ceasefire members was that violence is a learned behavior and a disease, its the answer to disrespect, its survival. This documentary shows the power of interruption, a way of intervention to cool the trigger response to disagreement. The documentary said over and over, pride and respect are the backbone of the lives in these communities. If either of those are threatened its a threat to the life of the person, it cuts that deep. I have seen this true in young children I teach as well. Fighting over a cross look, a insult of a family member or a personal insult. I have spent many minutes, hours and days discussing other solutions to those problems. I have had conversations with students about better choices and they know what to say they can verbalize other strategies, they know them well. But at the end of the day, they go home, they live in the neighborhood, and they solve their problems. So how do we reduce this in school? How do we make schools a safe zone for learning and not have children fearing others or fighting others?
I don’t have the answers to fix it. But I think we must find ways to make it better so that more learning is possible. The interrupters were successful in their job of interrupting violence because they listened. They often talked very little in fact. We need to listen to our students. We don’t do this enough. They were successful because they had relationships with people involved in these situations. We need to build relationships with students that are some of the most important in their lives. They need to know we care about them, believe in them, and hear them when they speak. We need to build relationships among our students. The interrupters brought feuding parties together. They listened, they supported and they helped work out issues. These are noble tasks, they are time consuming and they are emotional, but they are necessary.
My title is teacher, but my job is so much more than that. We have a responsibility to the children we teach to listen, to care, to create safe zones and meaningful relationships. This I think is universal.