Confessions of a Teacher: Learnt

I wouldn’t say I’m a racist. That’s always been an ugly word, especially now. I think it’s okay to admit I suffered from a certifiable case of culture shock.

I’m thinking of the year I was hired to teach in what some might label a stereotypical “inner city” middle school, though the students there are not near as hardened as you might be imagining. Nonetheless, I had my first taste of this culture shock that summer before school started. The gentleman who happened to be on campus that July day and kindly escorted me through the halls sheepishly led me past a glaring, three-foot tall blue penis spray-painted on the window outside my new classroom. One of the first things I noticed about my new room when I crossed the threshold for the first time was a smaller, equally offensive version of the same blue genitals on the window behind my desk (The term blue balls suddenly took on a whole new meaning. At least there was that to laugh about.) Also, lining the back of my classroom where I expected a wall to be was an accordion-style folding partition. Not exactly my dream job of teaching, I could tell that much. The first few minutes I was in my new room, I cried. It was not even my first day of actual teaching for that district, and already I was replaying scenes from Dangerous Minds in my head. Should I make room in the lesson plans for Michelle Pfieffer’s Dylan-Dylan contest? How many Snickers bars would I need to buy? Would my new anthem become my favorite song from that movie, “Gangsta’s Paradise”?

I am a white, approaching middle-age woman; most of the students I taught the four years I was at that middle school were not white. They were largely made up of Hispanics and African-Americans. To be candid, to be authentic, I felt like a fish out of water.

My culture was not their culture.

My values were not their values.

And this created problems.

I did have a problem with many of my students… I had a problem with EXTREME apathy toward learning, despite my best and most innovative efforts to win my students over. I had a problem with families who offered no classroom support and made no effort to give their kids the impression that school is important. I had a problem with kids thinking the streets are cool, preparing for the future and being smart is not. I had a problem with families who gloated in generational welfare. I had a problem with three of our 8th grade students being pregnant during the year. I had a problem with a lot of things. I experienced a complete clash of our cultures.

I spent four years of my teaching career feeling like a failure because I struggled to merge the cultures and values of many of my students with my own. My numbers were no different; my data was comparable to other teachers on campus, even better than some in areas of student growth. But, in the year I’ve been out of that school district, I’ve endured an incessant, gnawing feeling. Why couldn’t I be successful? How should I have overcome paralyzing culture shock?

How did I fail?

I use to be a good teacher. Best practices, collaborative learning, differentiated instruction, engaging lessons, all of these teacher-y things were second language to me. Not a blessed one worked in my new school.

Which leads me to this: Edward M. Baldwin’s book, LearntLearnt

I plucked it from the overcrowded shelf at the public library because of this jacket synopsis: “Kenny Houston is a white teenager with problems… and he’s being shipped to Lincoln High, a predominantly black alternative school in a week. …Tony Avery is a black man with problems too. He’s Lincoln High’s new English teacher, but he’s not very popular. Portraying an authentic African-American dialect, Learnt tells the story of a discouraged teacher and a troubled student learning the most valuable lessons of their lives in one of Duval County’s worst high schools. A tale that speaks out to teachers, parents, and anyone who has ever set foot in a high school classroom.”

Wow.

I buried myself in the world of “Kenny Houston” and “Tony Avery” this past week, wondering how much of myself I might be lucky enough to discover among its pages. A “discouraged teacher and a troubled student learning the most valuable lessons of their lives”? A clash of cultures. With a happy ending.

The book did not disappoint. I kept asking myself, Why doesn’t Avery just quit? (He asks himself the same question repeatedly, especially after trying days when he rushes home feeling defeated and ready to lick his wounds.) He never does though. He is determined to keep at it. Throughout his journey in surviving his first year of teaching, proving administration and the community wrong, and finding his own teaching niche in which to settle, Avery’s heart spirals back to the same fundamental principle: there are students who need him.

Above all else, the novice teacher treasures relationship. He allows room in his heart for any kind of relationship his students are willing to offer. Some students come to adore him and relinquish enough to become compliant, well-behaved students for him. Some maintain their “old ways,” the same behaviors that scared off two other teachers before Avery. They at least respect him enough to let him teach without too much disruption, even if they never actually become ardent learners themselves. Others actually fall into a fairytale ending when they truly enjoy learning for the first time and make great academic strides. They were capable all along. They just needed the right key to unlock their potential.

Avery doesn’t always understand his students. He can’t always relate to them. They predictably grumble when he assigns homework. He makes home visits and is surprised to find he’s not welcome by some of their parents. But it always comes back to the same idea: relationships. Avery achieved what I feel like I ultimately let become a struggle for me: Relationships trump everything else. Relationships especially trump cultures that clash.

I’ve known it all along: Teachers are in the business of people, not education. Teachers should protect those people at all cost: by accepting them and every pound of baggage they’re forced to drag behind them, by not giving up on them as individuals despite how many of them collectively hold morals or values that are different from our own, and by, above all else, loving them for who they could be and not who they may be today.

What an awesome responsibility I took on in becoming a teacher! I am accountable for those things, as I should be. As Baldwin concedes about the unsung hero of his story:

“If they [his students] fail, he’s partly to blame. But even though the blame wouldn’t be entirely his, he knows his part in their failure would be the most pronounced. …Besides, students and parents don’t claim to have majored in their position, or graduated with a three-point-seven-two grade point average while studying to be a student or a parent. Students and parents haven’t gone through workshops and internships, bent on honing their techniques and skills before being awarded with the title of ‘student’ or ‘parent.’ They don’t wield a diploma that claims they know what they are doing. They are not really expected to be professional or even the slightest bit good at what they do, and they can’t successfully argue that what they do deserves a paycheck.”

But we educators do. It is our challenge to take the blame for our students who fail. We have spent years perfecting our craft. Students are just students; parents are just parents. But relationships… relationships will bridge most gaps and, I want to believe, eventually settle the conflict of clashing cultures.