Perhaps the biggest disconnect that takes place when young, typically white teachers are sent by programs like Teach For America into urban schools that are made up of predominantly Brown and Black students happens as a result of their ignorance about the experiences our students have dealt with their entire lives. Students from urban areas deal with levels of stress and anxiety that are induced by their home life at levels that students from suburbia do not face. Nonetheless, the hopeful, “one day” optimists look away from the painful and distressing realities that our students experience and push for a focus on academics.
The idea behind turning a blind-eye to our students’ strenuous life at home comes from the “warm demander” persona which asks that an educator keep expectations high for students while meeting their basic needs. While the “warm demander” persona has proven to be effective in some urban classrooms, we must admit that “high expectations” are determined, or should be determined, case by case. For example, when you have a 9th grade student who reads at a 3rd grade level, is an English language learner, and is experiencing homelessness, the “high expectation” of reading an entire chapter from a novel like “To Kill a Mockingbird” is unrealistic. Instead, the “high expectation” should be catered to that students’ abilities and circumstances by having them read a paragraph from a chapter in the novel, and discuss their reading comprehension in their native language. In this case, the student experiences the challenge of meeting a literacy goal that is attainable, and therefore pushes to meet an expectation that is “high” for their level, while another 9th grade student who is at grade level and is an English speaker might be asked to read an entire chapter and write an analysis in English.
The reason why young, optimistic educators tend to have a difficult time in classrooms where the student population consists of students of color is a direct result of their ignorance about our students’ day-to-day troubles. We cannot expect students who suffer from PTSD symptoms to buy into English and math in the same way that white kids from the Oakland Hills, or Beverly Hills will buy into their academics. Educators must address the underlying socio-emotional conditions that students face before addressing academics, and if at this point you are feeling like an educator who is unqualified to address both dilemmas in the classroom, you are probably correct.
Currently, teacher-preparation programs send utterly unqualified educators into classrooms and expect them to succeed. It is ludicrous to send a fresh-out-of-college kid into a classroom where students need expert help. Students do not need pity, nor condescending empathy. Our students are strong, and they know it, so they don’t need a young, patronizing educator affirming something what they already know. Students need food and in-class snacks, not teacher tears. They need human connection, not asymptotes. They need a listening ear from an adult, not a commenting mouth. They need clear academic goals, not vague, grade-motivated assignments. Most importantly, our students need to know that the world is not as cruel as their homes can sometimes feel, and we can help them see that by focusing on their humanity before tackling their academics.
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