As an idealistic first year teacher, I had many ideas about what my classroom and students would be like and the expectations that I would have for my them. I wanted the bar to be set high, so that they could be successful and learn not only the subjects that I was hired to teach, but also life skills that would be useful in their lives. I thought that my intentions were noble. I soon came to realize that I would be the one learning.
Classroom management skills are very important. If you have no control of the classroom as a teacher, you are doomed. You cannot get through the curriculum that is mandated by the state if there is chaos in the classroom. I made classroom management my top priority in the first few weeks of school. We had procedures and rules for just about every situation. I wanted to be very disciplined, and I wanted my kids to be responsible and accountable.
One of the things I stressed was the importance of respecting time. So I taught my students to be on time and that not showing up or showing up late was disrespectful. It did not take long for me as a teacher in an inner-city school to learn a life lesson that I will never forget. It seemed that no matter what, I would always have the same couple of students late to school. After warnings, I gave them detentions. It was during the detention time that I learned the truth about their tardiness. What I learned from the tardy students was heartbreaking. I literally had no idea what these kids had to go through to just to get to school in the morning!
The obstacles that confront kids in San Bernardino, California on a daily basis are challenges that most adults can’t even fathom and would be hard-pressed to recover from and head to work to start their day. The city of San Bernardino has long been troubled with various issues, and most of my students lived in the worst, most run-down parts of the city. After having conversations about why they continued to arrive late to school, I was horrified to learn the truth.
I would ask them, what were the reasons why they were late or what were the reasons why they didn’t do their homework or just they seemed so tired or unmotivated during class? I learned so much from these conversations with my former students. I learned that one of my students was late because his apartment complex was closed off as a crime scene where a murder had taken place in the early hours of the morning. I learned that my students had to walk through two miles of gang and drug infested neighborhoods to get to school. I learned that my students had to deal with domestic violence in their homes. I learned that my students sometimes had no electricity, no place to shower or wash their clothes, and no food at home. These are the heartbreaking realities that my 6th grade students had to endure. After listening to these stories, getting to school on time didn’t seem as important as trying to survive in these conditions and circumstances. I changed my attitude with the students and relaxed my policy to “be careful and get here in one piece!”
I learned that most of the kids in my classroom experienced food insecurity. Many of them did not know when their next meal would be served at home. Working with children who might not have been receiving enough nutrients was challenging. These students were the forgotten people in the desperate and blighted part of San Bernardino that more affluent Californians wouldn’t ever visit or know about. The crime reports that we hear about have a real impact on our children with real consequences that teachers have to deal with in addition to the expectation of meeting state standards.
Teaching in a city like San Bernardino is not for the faint of heart. Easing expectations may help urban teachers connect with their students and allow them the freedom to relax and learn. It is a challenge for all involved, Understanding is the key. Crime affects us all.
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