21 May Lessons from Inner City Subbing
Little did I know that when I started substitute teaching a couple years ago, I would have the greatest education about life in the inner city. I grew up in a suburb where kids had three or more meals a day and had a full set of clothes to wear to school. We rarely heard swearing, and I never heard of anyone being arrested. We didn’t have lockdowns, and I was never afraid to go to school. I heard of gangs, but they weren’t where I lived, so I didn’t think about them.
But then, I signed up to sub, and everything changed. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve experienced.
-A first grader complaining of being hungry at 8 a.m. He had had no breakfast or dinner. He was eligible for a free breakfast, but his parent had not gotten him to school on time to eat. That seems criminal to me! How can a hungry kid learn? I then sent him and several other hungry students who hadn’t had breakfast to the cafeteria for some food.
-Students stressed and complaining about having to wear school uniforms because it’s hard for their parents to afford all that they need. They need more than one outfit because they need to wear the clothes five days a week. If it were me, I’d want five sets and some extras in case my family didn’t do laundry weekly.
-Profanity as the main form of communication. I frequently ask students to “clean up their language.”
-Yelling and loud voices in desperate attempts to be heard. I often speak in a quiet voice in order to calm the students and amp down the volume so that they can focus on their learning.
-Fights as the main way to handle anger and solve disputes. Boys and girls fight each other. Same sex versus same sex or opposite. Fists aren’t gender specific. One elementary school student I had boxed a wall. He told me that he needed to be strong so that he never lost a fight. I hope that his future doesn’t include one.
-Tall, iron gates and fences surround schools. Police drive around and patrol campuses. With such security, schools look and feel like prisons!
-Random searches in class. These are scary! For my one experience, campus staff came in and announced the search. They told all the students to put their hands down flat on their desk. No one spoke. I felt like I could hardly breathe, and I wasn’t even being searched! Staff then walked around, looked through students’ books, papers, and even the trash cans.
They then reviewed what students were not allowed to bring to school, like drugs, weapons, and sharpies (to prevent permanent graffiti). Then they asked students who had any of the prohibited items to step outside. Five students left! In a class of 35, that’s 1/7 or 14 percent of the class. After those students left, the staff took out a few students at a time and searched them – their backpacks and anywhere else forbidden items could be hidden.
This took most of the class. When the search ended, could anyone talk about academics? No! Only the search!
-Students talking about fights, shootings, and prison.
-High school girls dancing on tables. No, this is not allowed. When one student danced, the other people at her table gave her dollar bills. Dancing for dollars! Where has she seen this? At home? At work? I had to send the students out to regain order. I love to dance, but during class, on desks and tables are not the time and place!
-A second grader complaining of back pain because she sleeps on the floor with many siblings in her tiny home.
-A middle schooler saying he was afraid to come to school because he feared being knifed on his walk. That was never on my middle-school mind. I walked serenely or rode my pink bike!
-Comments about me being white. I always feel sad about this because I show up in good faith, and I give my all no matter who I’m working with—those living uptown and those in the poorest areas. I hope that by the end of the day or period, the students learn that I am a friendly soul with a heart and spirit of caring for all.
-Lockdowns. My first day at an inner city middle school, we had a lock-down. The police told us to stay inside the class and keep the door locked. Since then, I’ve been in lockdowns in elementary and high schools. The scariest was the high school lockdown. We sat in the dark hidden by our desks, behind closed blinds and a locked door. Would someone shoot the door down? Would the school be on TV as another mass school-shooting example? We later learned that the lockdown was due to a gang issue.
-Sweetness underneath tough exteriors. Recently, when I assisted another teacher in a rough middle school, a girl stood up and yelled a profanity to another girl across the room. It even scared me! Later in the day when the girl came to my class, I thought, “Oh no! What might happen in our class?”
I was my usual kind self, though, and midway through the class, she walked by my desk and gave me sweet smile and waved. I waved back. Her smile was so tender, it was like a different person from the preteen who made the cruel outburst earlier. Underneath her tough exterior, she is a girl like any other—wanting love, approval, and affection.
I hope that she gets the peace, safety, and freedom to drop her hard shell and be her tender self. I’ll never forget her smile. It meant more to me than any smile from the privileged students I also teach.
-Tantrums and arguments about belongings. When people have little, the tiniest things, like hard candy, are precious.
The teacher’s challenge in these situations? Teaching! Hungry students with survival worries can be too preoccupied in their minds to learn much.
What is the solution? I have no magic answer. All I can do is show up and offer them kindness, respect, and guidance for learning academics and life skills. I bring a gentle spirit and smile. Sometimes, when I smile at them, I get no response. It’s like it’s a foreign expression. Does anyone ever smile at them?
I’ve had students tell me that I’m the nicest sub they’ve had. Recently, when I was at a rough middle school, a girl thanked me for being a good sub. She had a hurt leg, and I sent her to the nurse for ice. When it melted, I sent her again for an official ice pack. It helped relieve her pain.
Sometimes the best teaching I do is just treating students with kindness and caring about their needs. I teach them that the world can be safe and friendly.
At times, I cry when I think of all these students. They live in war zones—wars of gangs, violence, and the despair of poverty. I pray that they have determined spirits and can overcome their hardships and emerge into a better life. Some do, and they inspire me more than anyone who grew up in a plush suburb and excelled in college. They were set up for success. The others were set up for failure, but overcame.
Thus, I wish all these students the faith, courage, stamina, and resources they need to attain and live their highest dreams. Wishing blessings to them all!
Jennifer K. Jordan
For more inspiration, please visit the Inspiring Wisdom Today Blog at www.InspiringWisdomToday.com/blog/.
Image reference – http://i.vimeocdn.com/video/543353122_1280x720.jpg
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