First Person: Teaching In An Inner City School

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By Lisa Chottiner

The day I got my job as a first grade teacher two remarkable things happened. One: a tornado hit the city. Two: I got my wisdom teeth out. So I guess you could say it was a disaster from the start, and I had no clue what was coming next.

You see, I am from the suburbs of Detroit. Girls like me don’t normally walk into city schools and get jobs teaching African American students. In fact, most Metro Detroiters could live for years without ever having a reason to go downtown. But after two years of migrant teaching, I was no longer picky.  I just wanted a classroom of my own. After all, I had “diversity training,” “multicultural awareness,” and practically minored in African American Lit! It was my time to “make a difference!”

When I entered my classroom, it was still filled with last June’s dust—make that at least 10 years worth of last June’s dust and all the grimy months in between. The school was dull, dirty, and smelled of urine coming from the boys’ bathroom across the hall. It was every cliché and stereotype of an inner city school anyone could ever imagine.

But I refused to let my enthusiasm be trampled by minor decorating delays. After all, teaching was more than just pretty walls. Instead, I would concentrate on learning my new curriculum and devising fun creative units. So, I headed to the office to collect my teacher’s manuals and meet the principal. (I was hired by district personnel and later assigned to a school.)

“We will have a meeting the day before school about our new curriculum,” the principal answered as she tried to make herself look busy.

“But—I’t I prepare in advance?”

“All teachers will view the curriculum at that time.”

Shocked. I knew teachers who spent entire summers plotting, charting, and graphing integrated curriculums to accommodate several learning styles and reading levels as well as all the state standards. Teachers who scheduled field trips, guest speakers, and planned school wide poetry slams and science fairs years in advance. Some wrote every new student in her class a personalized welcome letter. What could I do? Besides, wait and have a panic attack?

As promised, two days before school began, piles of binders were dumped on me stuffed with worksheets for me to copy. Everything I was taught in Education school NOT to do was just “mandated” to me. As for supplies, all I received were two reams of paper per card marking. (How was I to copy all these “stimulating” worksheets?)

“Where are the crayons, scissors, and construction paper?” I raised my hand and politely asked at the meeting.

“Crayons are a non-essential supply,” stated the principal.

“But I teach first grade.”

“I know what grade The Administration hired you to teach."

I decided to quit while I was behind.

Also, I suspected everything The Administration liked about my interview would be discouraged here. My principal didn’t desire “new blood” with fresh, innovative ideas. I was something that was “mandated” to her. She was the lucky winner of the first new teacher to be hired in years. Before me, student attrition and retirement were evenly balanced. (Most of the teachers taught in that school longer than I was alive.)  Still I couldn’t believe any of them weren’t reacting to her statement. Crayons? Non-essential? In first grade?
The first day of school I drove by a crime scene complete with yellow tape just a few houses down from my school.  And when my students arrived, not only could I not pronounce any of their names but I also had a hard time telling one bald black boy from the next. It was then I realized: I AM IGNORANT!

My other epiphany came about the same time: I was hated because I was white. You see, I am Jewish, and never considered myself to be part of the evil majority. People, who can’t agree on anything, can agree they hate me. But at that school, they didn’t know I am Jewish, I was simply white and that meant a deep dislike and distrust by the kids, parents, and fellow teachers. In fact, there was a bet in the teachers’ lounge about how long I would stay. Every day I thought about quitting, until I discovered the power of words.
Cierra made herself hard to like. She leaned back in her chair, tapped her pencil, talked out of line and never did her work. Once, when I was helping her with a math problem and she blurted out, “My Mama was arrested too many times, so now I live with my Grandmama.” Cierra’s grandmama never greeted Cierra with a smile or a hug only a gruff, “Come On!” Living with her, couldn’t be much fun.  Cierra didn’t know how to say this, so instead she misbehaved.   One day she arrived at school wearing a beautiful dress....

I probably should have reprimanded her for arriving out of uniform, but instead I complimented her, “You look just like a princess.”

“Thank you,” she said in a sweet voice I never heard from her before.

All day she sat, listened, and followed directions. I kept praising her behavior and work. During seatwork, she even stood up and announced, “A real princess is good. I am a real princess.” and then twirled back down in her seat. At the end of the day, I informed her Grandmama about her great day. A smile cracked her face.

The next day Cierra returned dressed in her usual dingy uniform clothes. But I reminded her she still was a real princess; she was merely in disguise today. It worked. Cierra learned more in two days than she did in a month—all because of the magic of one word: princess.

It was then I decided that the most important thing I needed to do as a teacher was to make every student feel valued and loved. Sounds simple, but so often overlooked. All children crave for someone to listen and believe in them. This has nothing to do with pretty walls or creative curriculum or being black, white, or Jewish: it was simply having a sincere and open heart. I learned the importance of choosing my words carefully.  Words have the power to help a child or harm them. Word choices can empower and inspire or embitter and discourage. So teachers chose your words carefully, you have the power to harm or help a child.

And by the way, I won the bet and stayed the entire year!

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