When I was growing up, I was always one of those people who loved school. I loved everything about it. I was very social, and I liked that I got to see my friends almost every day. I liked my teachers, and looking back, I think I had some of the greatest ones there were. I liked the lessons, the lectures, the videos, the activities. I liked all of it. More than anything, though, I just loved to learn. I still do. New knowledge and information are exciting, and one of the wonderful things about life is that there is so much to learn.
I also always knew, at least in the back of my mind, that I wanted to teach. I liked playing school, and I started tutoring at a young age. Even in elementary school, I loved when teachers paired us up with people who needed a little help because I liked helping them understand. By middle school, a lot of people would come to me with questions on their own. And I loved having reading buddies in a lower grade.
I think because of the kind of student I was (and am), anyone who has known me for a while envisions me teaching AP and honors classes to the most advanced students. Those are the ones who are just like me, after all. They see me out in the suburbs where I grew up, in a quiet classroom full of avid readers studying hard to get 4s and 5s on “The Test.” When I started college, I think that’s how I saw myself, too.
Then I worked for a summer at a charter school in Detroit. It was a program for elementary students who were behind in reading and math. I was still in college, and I was a teacher’s assistant. The kids did not look like me, and already by second grade their life experiences had been completely different from mine. But I loved them. I loved the way their eyes would light up when they got the right answer to a problem that they had never been able to solve before. I loved how readily they asked for help, and I loved how big their little hearts were. They wanted and needed to be loved, and they were willing to give it in exchange.
Ever since then, my entire career has been spent with at-risk students. In my first teaching job, I taught at a charter school in Hazel Park that was a lot like the one I worked at in Detroit. In both cases, the standards were very high, and although a lot of the students started the year below grade level, we were determined to help them catch up. We wanted them to be successful, and I think our joy was equal to theirs when they met their goals.
I’ve been at an alternative high school for the past four years. Students come to us for so many reasons. Many of them just never turned in their homework in their traditional schools, so they were failing everything over and over. Quite a few have ADD or ADHD, and a large classroom at a traditional school makes it hard for them to focus, and hard for the teacher to notice when they are not focused. Some have behavioral challenges or problems with the law, but those students are only a small part of it. Our goals at the alternative school have almost as much to do with the students’ social-emotional wellbeing as with academic content. We also work on building academic and life skills alongside teaching the standards.
I think what’s been the most important across all of my experiences working with at-risk students is the need to build a community in the classroom. For me, that involves getting to know the students individually, and helping them get to know one another. Teaching English and history lends itself well to that. Beyond the initial ice breakers, I can craft assignments that help students talk about their personal histories, about who they are and how they see themselves in the world. It’s important to not only connect with the students, but to help them connect with one another so that they can see that we are all in this together. I would say that one of my biggest strengths as a teacher is in developing those connections and helping my classes feel of a sense of unity and loyalty and safety.
The key, I think, is seeing beyond the categories or stereotypes that present themselves at your door on the first day. It’s looking for the best in every student. It’s seeing that the loud, abrasive young man who swears as naturally as he breathes is looking for someone to hear him, to validate his opinions and care about what he has to say. He lives with about ten other people in his house, after all: his mom, his brother, his cousins and an aunt, a niece and a nephew. It’s hard to be heard at home in the midst of all of that noise. It’s helping a teen mom build the confidence to read aloud to her daughter at home, to see herself in a new way, to see that she has opportunities and choices open to her that she never even knew about. It’s hearing the heartfelt apology of a young man you had to ask to leave class for making an inappropriate comment about you, about another student, about the principal, about an entire race or group of people, and listening to the remorse in his voice, and being able to forgive and move on and repair a relationship so that it doesn’t stay broken forever.
This is my gift: building community among individuals who are vastly different from each other and myself. And this is what I love to do: help at-risk students see themselves and each other and me in a different way, to learn and to grow together so that at-risk can become graduated, successful, motivated, driven, so that the world can see how brilliant and gifted they are the way that I do.