On January 3rd, 2009 my family helped me move 50 miles across Maryland into my new apartment in the city. Two days later I would start my new adventure.
I joined a teaching residency program which allowed me to work as a teacher while working on my certification and earning my masters degree. A program similar to TFA but with a local recruiting team and local impact.
I was one of the few lucky ones that got to co-teach my first 5 months in the system. Many others were not so lucky and they were dumped into the classroom to fend for themselves; or at least that’s what many say about their experience now. Most of them have left the profession, and they are quite bitter at how terrible their experience was.
I am not sure if I was lucky because I got to learn from my co-teacher how to manage a class and teach; or maybe it was the fact that I was determined to be a teacher and loved the idea of a challenge. Whatever it was, I was very idealistic and willing to “die on the mountain trying.”
At the end of the 5 co-teaching months, I landed my first a teaching Pre-K position at a public charter school. Even though it was a charter school, the school ran more like a neighborhood school as there was no lottery for entrance to the school. Everyone in the neighborhood and beyond was welcomed. Once again I was blessed to have an awesome co-teacher, even though I think we often didn’t see eye to eye with each other. It was great to have an extra pair of eyes and ears for all the 20 children in our class. Someone to bounce ideas with. I loved how relaxed she was around children and how she tried to incorporate her love for yoga and meditation into the classroom. For the first time I was introduced to the idea of being mindful.
A few months later that year, another co-worker raved about her TFA classes at another charter school. I visited the school and fell in love with it. This charter school was all about getting children to and through college. This was the whole reason I had become an educator. I wanted, I needed to be part of this special place. So I applied, interviewed and luck once again had it for me. I was offered a job to be the founder of the 1st grade team. I had found my niche.
Everyone at this small, yet growing, charter school had the same mindset. We all worked together to give the best possible education to our students. We looked at each other’s data, we observed each other teach, we gave feedback, we shared lesson plans, we worked long hours per our contract, and then some more just to make things better. We created our own curriculum because if there was a better way, we had to find it.
In that little tin can, my love for teaching grew. It wasn’t just my idealism anymore that drove me to love teaching in the city. I wasn’t alone in this. My principal’s passion for the mission of our school was so inspiring and every PD session left me knowing that I was meant to be part of this. I remember my first summit conference in Las Vegas with my team, so inspiring to hear that across the nation my charter organization was making the possible happen. Getting more students from disadvantaged neighborhoods to and through college. I heard the inspiring stories of alumi that were inspired by their teachers to become teachers and now they were back to the same charter school from which they graduated to be the difference they had once experienced.
I’ve been teaching at this charter school for 7 years now. I have had the privilege to see my 1st group of kids move up and they are now in 7th grade. Many still come by out of their way to say hi to me and give me a hug. Some still roll their eyes at me when I re-direct them. Some have moved away, and some have come back. Since I started at my school, I imagined being in this place at least until my first group of kids graduated from college, and possibly more.
I got to learn so much from this experience, but mainly that urban teaching was my calling, and it has prepared me to take on new challenges. As I sit to reflect on this, here are 4 reasons why I feel urban teaching is a calling.
The Need Is Always There
There is a need for good teachers everywhere across the nation and across the world, however the need for educators with a strong will to be the change is one quality that is present in urban teachers. Urban teachers have fewer resources given to them, the demands and the stakes are higher in comparison to suburban educators. Urban teachers are expected to ensure students are learning and growing but receive little to no support when student behaviors escalate.
The demands of the job and the behavior challenges that are often seen in city school often leads to most teachers leaving the profession after a year or 2 of teaching because they cannot take the stress and demands of the job.
Urban educators; however, develop relationships with families and students to continue to push through these difficult situations. They see past these challenges and seek ways to engage and motivate students, by creating support plans and developing stronger relationships with families and the community. Urban teacher do not give up. They know how tough it is to teach in the city and know students need consistency; not a revolting door of new educators every year. Urban teachers are the change students really need.
With Or Without, Teaching Must Go On
Urban teachers work in schools that have not been renovated, probably since they were first open at least 50 years ago if not more.
Teachers across the nation are expected to make classroom functional, safe, loving and welcoming. They spend hundreds of dollars at the beginning of the school year for their classrooms. But there are some things no educator should have to think about because they are human rights. The right to a school that is clean, well-lit and ventilated. No one should have to endure migraines due to the heat in their building, or have to purchase a portable AC unit that helps bring down the classroom temperatures from 98F to a balmy 92F; specially when the windows are bolted shut. No teacher should have to bring a space heater to warm up a classroom.
Yet urban teachers endure these conditions, and they still make this classroom inviting even if it means buying the AC unit, or getting it funded on DonorsChoose.
A Daily Balancing Act
Urban teachers have to deal with a lot beyond just the curriculum, administration and budget deficits. Urban teachers deal with a lot of trauma, and while trying to be supportive of their students they also need to ensure their students continue to make academic gains. Urban educators have to walk in that fine line between being compassionate and upholding high expectations for their students where there are no excuses and no shortcuts.
Joshua T. Dickerson’s famous poem, “‘Cause I ain’t got a pencil” is the true reality of many children in the city, many as young as 1st grader. Urban teachers have to learn to be empathetic yet they have to find ways to support that student and hold him accountable for their learning. Even more importantly, urban teachers know that they must not give up on the student.
Relationships, Relationships, Relationships
Every good educator builds positive relationships with their students. Urban educator are notably different from suburban educators because urban teachers build their relationships inside and outside of the classroom. Urban teachers bring and share their passions, whether its theater, yoga or singing into the school. They understand the importance of exposing students to different experiences that may not always be available in their neighborhoods. Urban teachers attend football matches, graduations, birthday parties, and more because they know students in the city need good role models just as much as a support system that cheers them on in their lives beyond the academic world.
At the end of this school year I will be leaving my school in the city and I will be moving back home. I responded to my calling to teach in the city, I loved being part of a community that fostered my skills as an educator and as a person. I loved being a small part of my students’ lives, and I am thankful for all the families who trusted me to care for and educate their children. I have a new calling now, to work back home with my Hispanic community. Although I will no longer be an Urban Educator, the lessons of love, empathy, compassion, strength, and perseverance that I learned these past 8 years while teaching in the city will forever be part of my identity as an educator.