Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Teachers of At-Risk Students: Let's Rally!

If you were to go through my blog archives, you would see a lot of entries about student behavior, management, and all the related stresses. I’ve spent over half of my teaching career working in extreme environments: I’ve taught extremely wealthy students in private schools, and I’ve taught severely impoverished students in Title I public schools. Sometimes, just thinking about the management of wealthy students when I’m working with poorer students gives me whiplash.

Until recently, there were not a lot of bloggers willing to expose themselves to the level of frankness needed to speak realistically about what it is like to teach in Title I, impoverished, and/or educational environments wherein students face the unique challenges of poverty. I think this is because we have a culture of “teacher judgment” online that prevents many of us working in challenging environments from talking about it. While I am not a mother, I think it is similarly related to how many of us judge the parenting skills of other people. For instance, I often used to get very irritated when I would see a child pitching a fit in a store. I would think, “If that was my child, I would take him/her outside and manage his behavior! This parent is indulging this child’s inappropriate behavior.”

Then, a fellow teacher friend made a Facebook post about a situation wherein her son was yelling and crying in the grocery store, and a stranger told her to take her child outside and punish him. You see, my friend’s son has autism, and many textures and sounds upset him. It would be easy to simply restrict his exposure to things he doesn’t like, but my friend knows her son will have to live in a world that won’t always grant him such privileges; she wants him to develop coping skills. As such, while the perception was that her son was pitching a fit in the grocery store, in reality my friend and her son were working on developing coping skills so he will be able to shop for groceries. Her statement online completely changed how I perceived the public parenting skills of other people. You simply have no idea of knowing anyone else’s story, and to judge it is to devalue and degrade it.

I won’t lie to you. I have to remind myself of this fact every single day (often, more than once).

I try to apply this same idea to teaching and to my students; especially the ones that push my buttons. I can’t go into detail because I don’t want to violate the sacred privacy of my students, but suffice to say I’ve had more than one humbling experience this year wherein I learned that a student’s home life experience explained much of the behavior I was witnessing at school. I’m sure you can relate.

The high value of privacy is part of the reason it is so difficult to write about teaching in challenging environments. It is hard to explain just how grueling it can be because teachers have to be so general. For instance, if I were to explain my second year of teaching experience (wherein I was at a 98% low SES school) generally, it wouldn’t seem so tough. Sure, kids got in fights, kids skipped, and there was talking back etc., but how different does that sound than any other teaching environment, right?  The thing is, I’m prevented from speaking explicitly about my experience because in doing so, I would have to talk about specific students. Even if I gave the students pseudonyms, if they were to find my blog, I’m sure they could identify themselves and others. The legality of writing about students using pseudonyms online is murky, but I do know of at least one teacher who has lost her job by writing in this manner. It just seems like the ethically wrong thing to do anyway; I wouldn’t want to see myself or my child written about by a teacher online without my explicit permission (even using a pseudonym). So, while I can only write to you generally about my second year of teaching, the reality of it is harrowing, and those who know me personally know that it marks one of the toughest and darkest years of my life.

40+ kids in a class? Routine for many Title I teachers.

 I’m only one of many hundreds of thousands of U.S. teachers with this same story. Our voices are virtually silent because we all feel similarly: To speak and write about the personal struggles of our students and selves in poverty educational settings is ethically wrong. Yet, our inability to write and speak authentically prevents us (all of us in the U.S.) from fully understanding how difficult the lives of impoverished students are, and how tough it is to teach in poverty situations. All too often the articles (peer reviewed and otherwise) that are written to address the demands, needs, and inadequacies of impoverished educational settings are white-washed. They almost seem too optimistic. In fact, they often make me upset because they generalize very real children in very real situations who are facing very real and scary lives.



It reminds me of this comic by artist Charlie Bink. In it, a circle has passed through a circle-shaped hole and is telling different shapes that they could fit through the hold too by “just being themselves.”  The issue, of course, is that the circle can just be him/herself, but the other shapes will have to make adjustments or they will not fit; they cannot be themselves. Much of the writing about teaching in Title I environments is the same.  I often read about talking calmly, setting firm expectations, and constantly modeling appropriate behavior. I agree with all of that; we all do. The issue is that teaching at-risk students is complex, and that there is no simple equation for success in a Title I environment. For instance, should I have a student beating his head against a cabinet while two students shout gendered slurs at him and the rest of the classroom yelling their own responses, it is going to be difficult to simply speak quietly and calmly, AND keep everyone safe, AND get control of the classroom, AND address the situation, AND not get emotionally involved myself. This is a hypothetical, but any Title I teacher could give you dozens (if not hundreds) of similar scenarios wherein the stuff in the books just doesn’t work.

It’s like communism: It sounds great on paper.

I once attended a lecture in my current school district designed for Title I teachers. The main speaker, another teacher in the district, was recognized for having exemplary behavior management skills. While the teacher had many years of experience, all of it was teaching in a wealthy neighborhood to students with lots of cultural capital and whose with whose families have “bought-in” to the U.S. educational institution. S/he knew virtually nothing about teaching transient students, minorities, at-risk students and/or impoverished students. The speaker repeatedly said, “If you set the expectations; the students will rise to those expectations.” In many ways, I agree with that statement. If a teacher doesn’t set high expectations, there isn’t going to be as much student growth. At the same time, I’ve been responsible for many students who are raising themselves, who don’t feel accountable to adults because adults have failed them over and over, and who have learned to manipulate in order to survive. Managing the behavior of such students is much more involved act than the mere setting of expectations. In fact, it is more like walking a tight rope, while washing a dog, and doing a pirouette.  It is also soul-sucking, emotionally stressful, and demoralizing because that same student who you are trying to help often may hate you, yell at you, make fun of you, undermine your authority, deliberately destroy your possessions, steal from you, threaten you, harass you, sexually harass you, and falsely accuse you of poor behavior.

This is the daily reality of many of the champion teachers of Title I students.


This is why the voices of teachers of at-risk students are so important in both the blogging community, and in more traditional publishing. While we can’t write specifically about students, we do have a wealth of experience about the nuance of the experience. We have a lot to share, and a lot of it is very meaningful. Many of us share the behavior management and strategies for success that work for us in our environments and sometimes it translates to being helpful to other teachers in similar environments. Teaching at-risk students can feel isolating because teachers are loathe to share their experiences for fear (or annoyance) of having them criticized or having them dismissed with the statement of, “But you never know the difference you are making!” Trust me, the “difference” doesn’t feel so meaningful in the darker moments of deep stress, frustration, and turmoil! Our voices are important so we can know that not only are we not alone, but that we have real resources that have real experiences that relate to our own. All of this is to say, our voices are matter; they are important, and they need to be heard.

I would like to begin a “Teacher of At-Risk Students” blogroll wherein we can find similar voices and source strategies and techniques to both our students and ourselves. Your blog does not need to be Art-specific, nor do you have to work in a Title I school. At-risk students and educational environments come in many different shades; the writing on your blog should speak to teaching in an educational environment wherein you feel that your students are at-risk and presents some challenge to you based on that risk. The blogroll will appear on the right-hand side of my blog.

Please either comment on this URL with your blog and/or email me with your blog (artful.artsy.amy@gmail.com)

One of my current favorite blogs that address the needs of at-risk students is http://artteachershelpal.blogspot.com/ There are so many amazing tips and strategies for teachers of at-risk students. Also, I looove her post, “The Culture of Poverty – “Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat.” Seriously. Read. It. It is game-changer philosophy!


Is your blog geared toward teachers of at-risk students, or do you have a favorite one that does? Please, let me know!

6 comments:

  1. Amy this is so very true. Not only do very few people have any idea of what we have to deal with. . . when you go to a conference or other educational event to meet teachers from other districts and tell them where you teach (some districts have a reputation) you feel like they don't believe you teach and just discipline. The respect among ourselves is often not there as well.

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  2. Wow. This really resonates with me. I have been a fan of your blog for a few years now. I also teach in Georgia and this year I am at 2 Title-I elementary schools. I have always found your wisdom and ideas very helpful. This post really hit home for a few reasons. First, my second year (last year) was my toughest as well. They say that if you can make if through your first year you can make it through anything but last year was a serious whirlwind of a fiasco.

    I am also struck by your cadence for speaking out about the issue of poverty in American schools. I have been thinking quite a lot about this lately especially with recent events in this country. I grew up in a very affluent area and went into art teaching knowing I wanted to be in Title-I schools. It is my belief that the students I serve need art more than ever and I feel proud bringing that passion to them.

    But you are absolutely right about the way that speakers, articles, and politicians generalize the reality of the Title-I environment. I absolutely love the idea of connecting through blogging and fully support the concept of sharing tips and strategies. It is so difficult to speak out about this -- I recently participated in a podcast about teaching art in Atlanta and when I mentioned that I work in Title-I environments and had to explain what that means I felt awkward. I felt like I was breaking a taboo by acknowledging it publically.

    So THANK YOU for speaking up and bringing this topic to light. I look forward to the conversation that grows from this! The blog http://www.loveteachblog.com/ is a great resource for this conversation and I also recommend this podcast: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/550/three-miles

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow. This really resonates with me. I have been a fan of your blog for a few years now. I also teach in Georgia and this year I am at 2 Title-I elementary schools. I have always found your wisdom and ideas very helpful. This post really hit home for a few reasons. First, my second year (last year) was my toughest as well. They say that if you can make if through your first year you can make it through anything but last year was a serious whirlwind of a fiasco.

    I am also struck by your cadence for speaking out about the issue of poverty in American schools. I have been thinking quite a lot about this lately especially with recent events in this country. I grew up in a very affluent area and went into art teaching knowing I wanted to be in Title-I schools. It is my belief that the students I serve need art more than ever and I feel proud bringing that passion to them.

    But you are absolutely right about the way that speakers, articles, and politicians generalize the reality of the Title-I environment. I absolutely love the idea of connecting through blogging and fully support the concept of sharing tips and strategies. It is so difficult to speak out about this -- I recently participated in a podcast about teaching art in Atlanta and when I mentioned that I work in Title-I environments and had to explain what that means I felt awkward. I felt like I was breaking a taboo by acknowledging it publically.

    So THANK YOU for speaking up and bringing this topic to light. I look forward to the conversation that grows from this! This blog is really a wonderful recount of this kind of experience: http://www.loveteachblog.com/ and this podcast is a great listen about this topic: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/550/three-miles

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wow. This really resonates with me. I have been a fan of your blog for a few years now. I also teach in Georgia and this year I am at 2 Title-I elementary schools. I have always found your wisdom and ideas very helpful. This post really hit home for a few reasons. First, my second year (last year) was my toughest as well. They say that if you can make if through your first year you can make it through anything but last year was a serious whirlwind of a fiasco.

    I am also struck by your cadence for speaking out about the issue of poverty in American schools. I have been thinking quite a lot about this lately especially with recent events in this country. I grew up in a very affluent area and went into art teaching knowing I wanted to be in Title-I schools. It is my belief that the students I serve need art more than ever and I feel proud bringing that passion to them.

    But you are absolutely right about the way that speakers, articles, and politicians generalize the reality of the Title-I environment. I absolutely love the idea of connecting through blogging and fully support the concept of sharing tips and strategies. It is so difficult to speak out about this -- I recently participated in a podcast about teaching art in Atlanta and when I mentioned that I work in Title-I environments and had to explain what that means I felt awkward. I felt like I was breaking a taboo by acknowledging it publically.

    So THANK YOU for speaking up and bringing this topic to light. I look forward to the conversation that grows from this! This blog is really a wonderful recount of this kind of experience: http://www.loveteachblog.com/ and this podcast is a great listen about this topic: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/550/three-miles

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow. This really resonates with me. I have been a fan of your blog for a few years now. I also teach in Georgia and this year I am at 2 Title-I elementary schools. I have always found your wisdom and ideas very helpful. This post really hit home for a few reasons. First, my second year (last year) was my toughest as well. They say that if you can make if through your first year you can make it through anything but last year was a serious whirlwind of a fiasco.

    I am also struck by your cadence for speaking out about the issue of poverty in American schools. I have been thinking quite a lot about this lately especially with recent events in this country. I grew up in a very affluent area and went into art teaching knowing I wanted to be in Title-I schools. It is my belief that the students I serve need art more than ever and I feel proud bringing that passion to them.

    But you are absolutely right about the way that speakers, articles, and politicians generalize the reality of the Title-I environment. I absolutely love the idea of connecting through blogging and fully support the concept of sharing tips and strategies. It is so difficult to speak out about this -- I recently participated in a podcast about teaching art in Atlanta and when I mentioned that I work in Title-I environments and had to explain what that means I felt awkward. I felt like I was breaking a taboo by acknowledging it publically.

    So THANK YOU for speaking up and bringing this topic to light. I look forward to the conversation that grows from this! This blog is really a wonderful recount of this kind of experience: http://www.loveteachblog.com/ and this podcast is a great listen about this topic: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/550/three-miles

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have been teaching inner city title 1 students for 11 years, and you hit the nail on the head. This culture of silence and the fear of being judged is something that needs to be talked about. Discipline is never one-size-fits-all, and the anecdote about your friend with the autistic child really got me thinking! When I have attended state and national conferences, I often felt like I was in a spotlight any time I would speak about my experiences with at-risk youth. While teaching at-risk youth is my professional reality, for the majority of teachers our every day lives are like the original versions of fairy tales. You know, the ones where there isn't necessarily a happy ending or a resolution to the story. The thing about those tales- you always learn a lesson. You have inspired me to write about this more in my blog, and (if you don't mind) I'll be adding you to the 'Blogs I Love' list on my blog's home page.
    Thank you for speaking up!
    ~Liz
    scribblesbyartteachervanallen.blogspot.com
    artteachervanallen.com

    ReplyDelete