It’s hard to explain what it is like, but I can tell you what it is not like:
Teaching in an inner-city school is NOT what most mainstream media presents, especially Hollywood. I know some Hollywood films like “Stand and Deliver” and “Freedom Writers” are based on real life teachers and students, but huge victories like that are not the norm. When you work in a school defined as failing by the city, state, and federal government, when 80% + of your student population live below the poverty level, when the disrespect for the teaching profession trickles down to the administrators who once had your back, you must look harder and harder to find even the small victories in your classroom, school, and life as a teacher. And the small become significant. Because that’s all you have.
When I look back at my 11 years of teaching, I am constantly amazed at how much I learned about our country. America had been a nice, safe, closed-off little box for me, a White girl from a middle class suburb in Virginia whose family crept from the lower middle class up towards the upper middle class during my lifetime. I didn’t know a smidge about real poverty in our country. I was just beginning to question, investigate, and seek answers and understanding about race. I had never seen a down and out neighborhood; I had traveled in Africa, but I had not yet seen Third World America. I didn’t know it existed. Teaching in NYC allowed me to see those places. It was shocking. It shocks me still that mere miles from where I sit and type right now there is an obverse to *this.* It is like I live in the Matrix. Teaching taught me that. I am a different person because I taught.
My career as a teacher was a very personal experience, therefore I get super defensive about teachers, teaching, and what it is like to work in “failing” schools. I also get defensive over media’s portrayal of teaching in an inner city school, and I have only seen it done well ONCE:
Season 4 of The Wire.
If you want to know what it’s like to teach in an inner city school, watch that. The first time we watched it, my husband would turn to me and say, “That really happens?” and I’d nod, “Yep.” That question and answer repeated itself endlessly. Textbooks/computers ordered and shoved in the corner of a basement and never found? Yep. A kid snitches and gets his ass kicked infinitely? Yep. A petulant girl stands up and cuts another in class? Yep. A kid’s parents sell his uniform for drug money? Yep. A student becomes a criminal to feed his/her younger sibling? Yep.
Until the most recent episodes of This American Life.
For five months, journalists from the radio show This American Life lived and breathed the experiences of Harper High School in Chicago, a school riddled with gun violence, gangs, and poverty. As I listened to the first episode, I was amazed by how much I already knew. I did not teach in a school the same caliber of challenging as Harper, but I had learned all the rules of gangs, snitching, neighborhood allegiance, drugs, etc. from my students. I had been schooled quite well. But the end of Episode 1, when the social worker was crying from fear and frustration, that hit me in the chest. I had been there, too. Crying for the student(s) and the shitty hand they had been dealt alongside my total inability to do anything substantial about it. I knew that.
Any/Everyone interested in education should listen to these. They take some time and some brain space (I have to listen while doing something mindless like folding laundry or the dishes), but they are courageous.
BIG LOVE & RESPECT to the faculty, staff, and students at Harper High, who opened themselves up to the reporters with abandon. Their words and stories truly illustrate that teachers and students are not the problem–the issues are far more complex than that. Thank you for giving voice to all the teachers walking the same walk out there.
The two episodes are below. Just click on the link, click download on the webpage, and listen: