Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Try a Little Tenderness

This morning, I found myself engaged in a lively Facebook discussion about a recent blog post from an Art Educator. In the original blog post, the blogger writes about a particularly trying day wherein there were several disciplinary issues that merited administrative involvement. The post ends with the author describing how she got ready to go home and watched her kids for the last half or so of the final class and then jetted out; she described it as “teaching in hell.”

The person who shared the blog post on Facebook just commented that she couldn’t get her mind off of the post. I’m not gonna lie; it is a pretty brutal post. There was no judgment from the person who shared the blog post on Facebook; just awe.

Then, came the comments. Which, I just really hope the original blogger never, ever, sees because some of y’all gotta calm down.

 I’ve written before about how ArtEducators in at-risk, low SES, and/or troubled environments are much less likelyto author Art Ed blogs. The primary reason, in my opinion, is that the moment any Art Ed author in a trying environment attempts to vent-write about discipline and/or behavior management, a ton of “well-meaning” Art Educators offer up the most basic, condescending, and not-likely-to-work-with-troubled-kids advice (I call this "concern-trolling" btw). When you are literally fighting your way through your day of teaching, the last thing you need is some teacher who has no idea of what it is like to teach troubled kids (or who has a knack for teaching troubled kids) to tell you how to do your job. Why can’t you just say, “Man that’s rough!” and move on?!

One of my personal favorites is when I wrote about how frustrating it is when kids walk off with sharpies. One commenter explained how “all” I needed to do was to ask the students to exchange their shoe for a sharpie.  Oh, why didn’t I, who underwent 13 years of public school, ever think of this ever-so-popular method?! I mean, honestly. Obviously, I’m aware of the exchanging a shoe for a pencil/marker method of management; I think every teacher in America is wise to that tip. But, would you like to know why teachers in low SES and/or tricky environments don’t use the shoe-writing-tool method? The only thing real monetary worth that my students wear are their sneakers; most cost upwards of $150 (the debate as to why poor kids have expensive sneakers is a totally different issue that I refuse to discuss here). These sneakers are vital part of their social hierarchy. I’ve witnessed students knock over other students in the hallway and then steal their shoes. My students don’t even like the bottoms of their shoes to get dirty. So, uh, no. I’m not eager to start a secondary situation wherein I have to manage expensive sneakers that are frequent subjects of theft just to manage a $1.00 sharpie. But, you know, I don’t really feel like I should have to justify all of that in order to give a one-off “man, managing sharpies is a bummer!” on my own blog.

And, that is the heart of the issue. Why do at-risk teacher-bloggers have to justify all of the behavior management and discipline methods they utilize before they are allowed to vent? Why, when at-risk teachers vent do people feel the need to say, “that teacher has given up”
 etc. etc. I’m not saying it is particularly professional to vent about your kids or administration online; there is a real fine line there. . . But, God help me, I have SO been there when it comes to needing to vent about a tough day. If you’ve never worked in a tough environment you have absolutely no idea how isolating it is for an Art teacher. Absolutely none.

I’ve taught in at-risk environments for years. Let me tell you a bit about it.  

-Even in a “tough” environment, I teach some of the tougher kids. I am less likely to teach a student enrolled in an opt-in program such as Band, Chorus, and Orchestra (which requires parent buy-in to the educational system). This does not mean that non opt-in program kids are “bad” (not at all!!), but they are more likely to have been removed from a program, to have less support at home, and are more likely to have disciplinary issues.

-Is there a transient kid that comes in to the school mid-term and you don’t know where to put them? It is easiest to place them in Art because the entry point(s) are more fluid. I average about three new students a week because at-risk schools average more transient students.

-There aren’t enough Connections teachers at my school for students who don’t opt-in to Band, Chorus, or Orchestra. This means that instead of teaching each kid Art once a year (which is what is supposed to happen in my district); I teach many children 2 and 3 times. While this is a pretty awesome opportunity to increase the visibility of Art in my building, these aren’t kids whom necessarily want to take Art. . .So, that can be. . .Interesting.

-There are 1,000 kids in my school. My yearly budget is $500.

-My class size ranges from 35-46 kids. An Art teacher working at a nearby school has 52 kids in one of her classes.

-In this era of Least Restrictive Environment or LRE (a really good thing!), Art is often the only “regular ed” class that students with severe disabilities can take. And, in my school, they take it repeatedly. I love teaching these students and making Art accessible to them. But, make no mistake; it is hard to ensure that you are meeting all of the demands of their IEP and/or 504 accommodations while managing a class of diverse learners.

-One of the (supposed) contributing factors to poverty is the break-down of family structure. People lacking familial support find it harder to navigate our system and often find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty (it’s really  complex and these two sentences don’t do such a great job of breaking this down, but stay with me). Many of my students are extremely autonomous when they are not at school. There are many single parent families and families wherein the parents work 2-3 jobs and/or rely on the (very unreliable) Georgia public transportation. Due to these reasons, my students find themselves responsible for their own care during non-school hours. They wash their own clothes. They cook their own meals. And, they frequently are the ones to take care of younger siblings and ensure younger siblings make it to school. They also frequently walk long distances to socialize and frequently socialize with much older relatives and their friends. So, they feel as if they are adults. And, in many ways they are adult-like and far more sophisticated than wealthier students. As such, my students do not like it when some teacher, who they recognize as not being a part of their culture, tries to tell them what to do at school. They balk. And, you know, I kinda get that.

-My students live in a food desert and have a hard time accessing food with quality nutrition. . .And, they have been living like this since they were in-utero.

-Another issue related to poverty is that some of my students have exceptionally young parents and/or parents who were (or still are) under the influence of illegal substances. If you combine this fact with absentee parents (whether this is due to neglect or necessity), you have kids who are quite literally raising themselves. They don’t have the same values I have because their family is drastically different than mine (and probably involves far less adults). This frequently causes cultural disconnects that result in students receiving disciplinary infractions for behaviors they feel are “normal” or “acceptable.” For example, in the homes of several of my students revenge is not only an accepted behavior; it is expected and encouraged. These students are perplexed when they are reprimanded for fighting a student for revenge, because they were “just fighting to get revenge.”

-There are epic cultural disconnects. Epic. I’m years into teaching in at-risk environments and I am still learning new ways in which I can work to be more compassionate for my students.

-It is hard not to get emotionally invested. Every single teacher hears, “you can’t take what they say personally.” And, in a general sense, I don’t. At the same time, no one wants to work in a place wherein you are frequently called rude names and/or disrespected. For example, I don’t take it personally when I’m told by a student, “you’re a bitch.” But, I don’t like that is a regular part of my working life.

-Another part of emotional investment is that kids in at-risk environments mostly have pretty sad life stories. If I were to get deeply emotionally invested in all of my students, I would cry myself to sleep at night. In order to be effective, I have to care, but I also have to create a bit of emotional distance so I can do my job. I don’t want to avoid disciplining a physically aggressive student who is acting out because her mother died. . .Because, well, I don’t want to do her the disservice of not holding her accountable for her actions. It is a tricky and very stressful balance to maintain compassion with accountability.
You also have to take the time to know A LOT about your students.

I take pride in the fact that I am an effective teacher who runs a really awesome Art program in an at-risk school. But, this has been years in the making. And, I have a knack for it. I’m super organized, yet flexible, yet strict, yet my class is very open-ended. I love my kids (LOVE THEM!), but I am also the first to hold their feet to the fire. I don’t tolerate nonsense or lying. I have no problem calling home and (as I tell them), “ruining the weekend.” They know not to even try skipping my class or taking too long in the bathroom because I. Will. Find. Them.  And no one fights in my class because the rule is that “If you want to fight in my class, you have to take me on first, and I will press charges if you put your hands on me in an aggressive manner.” Well, obviously, I don’t expect them to fight me. . .But, that level of crazy is part of the balancing act I undergo to keep my classes running.

All of this takes a ton of energy, patience, experience, planning, heart, and passion.  Like, tons.

My second year teaching was my first year in an at-risk school. I was also in a trailer. That first day, two kids got in a fight. The other students pushed tables in such a manner that I couldn’t get to the fight to break it up. Instead, I had to crawl over tables (in a dress) to get to the fight. The only way I was able to end the fight was to physically restrain the one of the fighters (who was kicking the other on-the-floor-immobile “fighter” in the stomach) by forcing him to the floor and using my body weight to keep him still. After the Football Coach showed up to help me move the students along to their 2nd period, I discovered that a student had peed in one of my chairs.

I sat down and cried. I called the district to find out what would happen to my teaching certificate if I just quit (it would revoke it and end my teaching career).  I stayed for an entire year. It was, without a doubt, the most difficult and trying year of my life. I fantasized about quitting teaching altogether. I cried myself to sleep almost every night. I thought I was a horrible teacher . . . It turns out, I was just not-yet-equipped to manage such an environment.

A few years (and years of education and experience later), I found myself working in an at-risk environment again. . .And, I’m good at it. But, y’all it is still a daily struggle. I still doubt myself from week to week. . . And some-days, I feel like I am “teaching in hell” just like the original blogger.

I have a million-and-one tips and tricks I use to make my classroomwork. I’ve written about it. A lot. Yet, I don’t feel the need to tell someone what to do about their situation on their vent post. The reason is that the writer is not seeking advice; s/he just needs a compassionate listener. Don’t we all need that? Don’t we all need the opportunity to vent to a friend about that terrible kid in 5th grade that drove you nuts today. . .And, then (two days later) don’t we need the same opportunity to tell our friend about the “totally awesome thing that the formerly terrible kid in 5th grade did today!”

Compassion, y’all. Please, just a little compassion.

One of my coworkers, let’s call him Mike, is the chorus teacher. Mike goes above and beyond for his students, and works hard to make sure that even kids with frequent behavior issues have the opportunity to shine in Chorus (if singing is their thing).  During one of Mike’s best Chorus classes, his new iPhone went missing. It was especially frustrating since Mike had his phone plugged in to the sound system and was actually using it in class; there was no grey area (“I didn’t know the phone was yours! Etc.). Even though Mike tried the “find my iPhone” app, called his carrier, and pleaded with students . . . The phone was never uncovered. Mike’s face was so down; it just about killed me to see my amazing coworker so upset. He felt disheartened and betrayed by his students; he told me, “maybe I shouldn’t be working here anymore.” Then, something kind of awesome happened. Mike realized that the action of one student was effecting how he felt about all of his students; Mike really didn’t like this. So, Mike spent the next day going around the classroom and telling each and every student one really positive thing he thought about that student. He was very honest and told me, “I had more positives to say for some than others, but I found something positive to say about everyone.” Mike was shocked when he started receiving little notes from students telling him about the impact he had in their lives; the notes were amazing. The notes said things like, “you made me realize I’m a good person,” and “I didn’t know I had any talent before I met you,” and “you make me feel like there is someone who cares about me.”

Heady stuff, right?

But, here is the thing:  It is an extremely rare person who can take a really bad betrayal situation and turn it into a galvanizing, classroom experience. These people are rarer than diamonds, and they are a combination of both raw talent and repeated experience working with needy kids.

I have no idea if the original blog poster has been teaching 1 or 20 years. But, I do know that she is overwhelmed. It isn’t going to benefit her at all for us to tell her how to “fix” herself or her situation.  This person needs our compassion, and our support. When she is ready for help –if she is ever ready for help- she will ask us. And, before you worry about the students she is impacting . . . If she is so unhappy that she is detrimental to students, she won’t return to this job in the Fall. Trust me, if you aren’t cut out for at-risk environments you leave (or you’re fired).

Teaching at-risk kids is not for the faint of heart; it takes a huge network of support. Next time you read about/see a teacher who is overwhelmed by his/her at-risk kids: Don’t speak negatively about this person or tell them (or others!) what they need to do to “fix” it. Instead, take the opportunity to be a part of the support network and offer them your compassion, ear, and heart.

After all, us Art Teachers need to stick together. 


  1. Very well-spoken, Amy, as usual. I read that blog post, left a brief comment to let her know I had heard her, and watched the Facebook dialogue but chose to stay out of it because, even after 36 years in the classroom, I wouldn't tell someone else what she should be doing to fix the situation. I taught in a rural school, class sizes never higher that 28' rarely higher than 24, and usually under 20. While we certainly have at-risk kids, I have zero experience dealing with urban issues. And from state to state, region to region, our issues and situations are so varied. So your words are perfect and I think your assessment, that the writer was just looking for a compassionate ear, was spot-on. Thank you.

  2. Amazing post Amy! I came home after a really stressful day at school, collapsed and started read through blogs to decompress... reading your post made me realize that in the grand scheme of things my day can not deemed that bad. I work in a rural district with classes no bigger than 23 kids. My kids don't have to worry about people stealing their shoes and I never see fights go down in my room or school. Your students are VERY lucky to have you as teacher! Someone who cares enough to stay through the thick and thin and love them no matter how unloveable they/things may be at times.

  3. Thank you for your words. Thank you for defending me. I was venting after a very bad day. I have not seen all the negative comments and I hope I do not. To be honest, I am a little shocked that anyone would be negative and mean about this. Kick a girl when she is down...kind of reminds me of how my students treat one another sometimes. I spend an incredible amount of effort everyday helping my students manage bullying behaviors. It makes me very sad to think that other art teachers would behave this way.

    I have been a teacher since 2001. I have taught in urban, at-risk schools for 6 of these years. This year is the hardest I have ever had for a number of reasons. The educational climate in Chicago is not good. Last year my school that I loved was closed. I had to find a new job. I was rehired at this school which is a "welcoming" school. This means that the school that was in the building we are housed in was closed. They renamed it for a school that was 4 blocks away. All the students were combined into the one building. In this particular Chicago neighborhood, that means we have at least 3 different gangs represented in our building, thus causing a lot of issues beyond even the normal issues in an at risk low ses school. The administration quit last summer, so we have had an acting principal until last month. The school that was 250 students became a school with 650. For some strange reason, the district only accounted for a possible population of 400 students, so we are working with a budget that doesn't even come close to covering the numbers we have. My Kinder and 1st grades are all at 36 students. The smallest class I have is 27.

    Today was a much better day. No fights and I was able to really teach. I even smiled several times and laughed with my kids. I have come to love them, even when I sometimes hate them, I really love them. To all the haters who made negative comments...until you have a 2nd grade girl crying in your classroom because a classmate made fun of her mama, who was shot and killed on the girls 8th birthday 2 weeks ago, you should keep your comments to yourself.

    Thanks again Amy. I cannot express my gratitude enough.

    1. Tracy,
      YOU are a strong teacher! YOU are the one on the front lines and "making it work". YOU are the one who receive not enough "Thank Yous". For those of us who have "been there and done/or are doing that"... we get it. I hope you have more days of no fights, smiling and laughter.... sometimes it's the only thing that gets us through the day!

      Good job Amy on your post! You rock!

  4. Dear Amy, I am not an art teacher, nor do I work in an at-risk environment. I keep coming back to your blog because your posts inspire me to constantly re evaluate what compassion really meqns to me. Thank you for that.

  5. Amy, I am also an art teacher at a title I, at risk school. I love reading your blog post! It lets me realize that although I am the only art teacher in my school, I am not alone out there. I was and still am unaware of the blog post you are referring to however, know that compassion is out there for us teachers... we just need to look long and hard to find it. But when we do sometimes that little bit is all you need to help get you through the day.

    Thank you again for all you do.

  6. Tracy B. - Of course and anytime. We have to stick together. As a Title I teacher, I was reading between the lines and thought, "This person just needs to let it out and be heard!" I soooo get it. .. And secretly, you could probably write a book on classroom management that the rest of us would want to read!!

    To everyone else: Thanks for the kind words and support. I'm always really grateful when anything I write resonates with anyone.

  7. Amy, I want to thank you as well. Your blog is a constant source of support for me. I am a second year teacher in an at-risk, Title I school. I work with so many people who are constantly telling me, "Find a new job, don't get stuck in an urban district, it's not worth it" and that my job is so "easy" because there are no standardized tests for art. They don't respect art as a subject and it's refreshing to come to your blog and remember why I chose urban education, and art specifically, in the first place. Personally, I find it to be as rewarding as it is challenging. Your tips, lessons, and stories apply to my unique teaching experiences more than any other blog online, and have helped me run my classroom as effectively as humanly possible! Thanks again and keep it up!

  8. Thank you. What you write is so well said and so true!

  9. I'm a second year (well, sort of - I'm 60%) art teacher for K-8 at a school where 90% of my students are on free lunch, almost 30% are on IEP's or 504 plans and our school is treated like a revolving door of students leaving, coming and returning all year long. 5 weeks from the end of the year and we had 2 new students today alone. There are days where I picked bed bugs off my students and have to find little Janey a new uniform because she smells of urine. I have cried at my job twice this year and many times once I got home. I have also been bitten twice. I have almost walked down stairs and turned in my keys on several occasions. I have no budget. As in not a penny for supplies. Thank God I only have 300 students and some of my classes are actually small with about 18 kids. I understand completely where you are coming from and you are an inspiration. Most days I think I am a huge failure at my job and that "I'm becoming a bad teacher..." THEN a student will say they hope I will be here next year or they will bring an entire notebook full of Laurel Burch inspired cats because that's what we learned to draw last week in art. I will have to be overly stern with a student and feel bad about it, but then that same still will give me a "love note" before class ends. And you're right - you have to care but also keep your distance because if you knew everything going on at home you would probably run out of tears. Teachers like myself, and others in similar situations, are doing their best (and you're right if they can't take it they won't stick) so teachers who cannot possibly understand should not be so quick to pass judgement.