November Cali Column – “What I Learned As A Teacher of Urban Students: Part 1” By Dr. Lisa DeLorenzo

The following entry is a selected sample taken from my book, Sketches in Democracy: Notes From An Urban Classroom, published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2012.  The second part of this story will appear in the December blog.

What I Learned As A Teacher of Urban Students:  Part 1

Dr. Lisa C. DeLorenzo  (November 7, 2016)

Teachers step into urban teaching for all kinds of reasons.  Some cannot find jobs in suburbia.  Others have a need to “save” those poor kids from the ghetto.  And, some teachers, committed to social justice, see education as a means of providing children with the tools they need to find hope in an often-ungracious world.  These are the teachers whose wisdom extends far beyond the teaching of content to a deep understanding of the human condition and the important role that their students play in the process.

To become a teacher of urban students is a privilege that may allude many in our profession.  Urban teaching has unquestionably received bad press:  shootings, classrooms out of control, teacher safety etc.  Except for extreme examples, such as Columbine, suburban schools seem to have much more balanced representation in the news.  Nevertheless, American psyche embraces the notion that bad things happen in urban schools.

Having taught music teacher education students for many years, I realized that my own experience as a rural and suburban music teacher was incomplete.  For that reason, I took a sabbatical year to teach in an urban school in a nearby city.  It was the most difficult teaching I had ever done, yet what I learned from these students at William Grant High School (pseudonym) proved unlike anything I had experienced in my then 20 years of teaching.

Prior to the opening day, the teachers met to talk about how to best create a school based on democratic principles where, for instance, students shared in setting rules for behavior, teachers taught lessons that involved students in problem solving, and discussion was a key factor in reflecting on ideas and giving students a legitimate voice in the process.   We overlooked the fact that democracy is a process that evolves over time and this became evident when the school opened its doors on the first day.

I was nervous but enthusiastic about the first day of school. My enthusiasm, however, dimmed quickly.  Whereas I envisioned teaching exciting ideas while also demonstrating democratic teaching practice, the students were more interested in socializing, talking with others during the lesson, and creating a chaotic climate in the classroom.  Lunch was a circus.  The first day had been set aside for a celebratory “picnic” style meal with the whole group eating together instead of walking to the cafeteria at the neighboring school.  With no large meeting area to congregate, the students set up some classroom tables in the central area of the building.

Because the space was not large enough, they crammed into all of the space available, often unable to pick up a drink without hitting another student.  Lunch consisted of a dry turkey sandwich and a choice of milk or juice (still frozen).  A number of students opted not to eat. By the end of lunch, student behavior had eroded into loud talking, running to the bathroom and unsanctioned visitations with friends in other classrooms.

Music class, unfortunately, was scheduled after lunch.  Given the events of the day, I could already see that my carefully planned lesson was not going to work.   As other teachers had discovered that morning, I faced a situation that had no viable solution other than to salvage what I could from my now-not-appropriate lesson plan.  Predictably, the students were bored and uninspired.  At one point I asked students how their first day had gone so far. Their immediate response was “dull, boring, and frustrating.”  Their complaints were embarrassingly legitimate.  It was hard to imagine any of the students wanting to come back the next day.

First days of school are particularly fragile times for a beginning teacher:  How will I introduce myself to my students?  Will they like me?  Should I develop the rules or should my students help me?  Will they like me?  Can I establish myself as the teacher in charge or will I come off as a bully?  How can I make the first day fun while still setting a tone for serious work?  Will they like me?  Gloria Ladson-Billings remarks, “despite all of their youthful and idealistic enthusiasm, most new teachers are frightened and overwhelmed by the demand of teaching.”

What teachers can learn from days where nothing seems to go right is that another day is always coming.  Rarely can a teacher, if acting in the best interests of the students, create an irrevocable situation. Perhaps the very best thing we can do for our pre-service students, aside from emphasizing flexible thinking, is to convey the fact that many events in teaching are caused by things beyond the individual teacher’s control.  As William Ayers explains, “Teachers often work in difficult situations under impossible conditions. For the most part, your students are pretty forgiving—hopefully the teacher can forgive him/herself when things don’t go as planned.”

At MSU, we talk a lot about democratic practice because as teachers in the public sector, we have a greater purpose in teaching, not only developing intellect, but also advancing students’ sensitivity to issues of social justice. One might gather from this blog entry, that urban schools need ironclad rules and lock-step instruction – the very antithesis of democracy.  However, it is the children who are marginalized in society that need democracy the most.  For the pre-service teachers who ardently believe that urban students have less to offer than suburban students, it is critical that their training address such ideas head on.  Students depend upon teachers to create a supportive community that engages them in essential questions about our world.  This is the kind of school that we hoped to build and would make progress, however slowly, toward this goal.


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