The Fish that Swallowed Me

After four years of teaching in a small, inner-city k-8 school, I have been forced to move on. The school is turning over to become a traditional elementary school and all the middle school teachers have been displaced–each of us sent to another school.

Many of us teachers were against the split from the beginning. Our school had seen huge improvements over the years and if there was ever one thing that our students do not handle well, it’s change–especially change with regards to teachers.

We had seen it over and over again in the past four years. As long as a teacher stayed and worked hard with the students, they grew academically, socially, and in maturity. But whenever a teacher quit during the year (which happened multiple times every year), the class became unstable; the students distrustful of adults, and unmotivated to learn. The thought of moving them all to a new school with a whole new staff just seemed like guaranteed chaos.

When asked if I would transfer with the students to teach at the new school, I politely said, “I don’t know” and quickly searched all available options. There were a few schools I had connections with, and I contacted them to ask about available jobs. I rewrote my resume and attended the biggest job fair in the area where I was given on-the-spot interviews with more than one school.

It was there at the job fair that I ran into one of my coworkers who was going to transfer over to the new school and wanted me to come with. “These kids need our strong team,” she said. “It will be chaos, but I think it’s what’s best for the kids.”

“God will have to swallow me with a fish first,” I said. We laughed it off and I went back to collecting business cards and contact info for as many places as I could, but as soon as those words had come out of my mouth, I knew that God was going to make me regret saying them.

That was back in May.

I had so many promising options, but none of them went through. By June, I had come to realize that God really had swallowed me with a fish. I had run out of time to find a different school and had resigned myself to transferring with my students to the new school, bracing myself for the worst possible scenario.

Now it’s October.

Our “new” school is up and running in a “newly renovated” building from the 1950s. When this place was first constructed, it was a segregated school, and with the exception of a few students, it still feels like it is.

The staff was given a very short amount of time to learn the school building, the planned procedures and schedule, or even each other’s names before we opened for students at the end of August.

To add to the anxiety and chaos, the number of students enrolling in the school blew past the expectation by nearly 75 students. That’s three classes worth of students without any teachers to cover them!

My class sizes are nearing 30 students–with only 20% reading on grade level.

But in spite of all of that, I don’t feel the panic or helplessness that I did four years ago when I started teaching in the inner city. God has given me a peace about where I am. The best part of my day is when I see my previous students who stop by the 6th grade hall to say, “Hi.”

My days are long and my students are exhausting, but they’re not hardened or mean-spirited. When it comes down to it, they really want to learn and they get frustrated when something is keeping them from learning (like constant fights and chaos in the hallways).

I’m genuinely excited about teaching them this year, and I’m mad that I’m surprised by that. I should know by now that where God has me is where I’m going to be satisfied. It may not be easy–ever. But that’s never what He promised me.

 

 

Help Me Teach Students

Reversing the Poles on a Magnet

Just apply heat

It’s my 4th and final year at this inner city school in Charlotte, NC. I have spent many days thinking about how far I’ve come. I said 4 years ago that I wanted to be a survivor. Even more, I wanted to thrive. It hasn’t really felt like thriving, but today, especially, it hit me how much things have changed. The changes have been subtle, yet the end result is quite drastic.
In the previous 3 years, I have had chairs thrown at me, I’ve been called a rainbow of inflammatory names, have had to hide tears from students, and, at times, have openly cried in front of students. I’ve had my phone stolen, I’ve had students throw my water bottle in the trash, steal pens and money out of my pockets, and throw paper at me and, at one point, gum.
But on Friday, I stood at the bus parking lot to monitor kids and in that time I had 2 first graders come and lean their heads on my stomach and hold onto me until their bus came. Another little one came to hug my leg. Then, as the middle schoolers came out for their buses, I had one of my current students lay her head on my back. And two of my previous students come to hug me goodbye for the weekend. More came and soon I had students of all ages clumping around me to talk, joke with me, hug me, or hang onto me for guidance.
If you’ve ever put a magnet in a dish with metal shavings, you might have an idea of what this was like.
bar-magnet-with-iron-filings

That’s me dressed in red.

2 years ago, I had a nightmare about being haunted by my most troubling class of students. In my sleep, they disrupted my classroom like poltergeists, clanging metal and calling out over my instruction.
Now my biggest issue is being haunted by my last batch of students who keep coming into my room on their bathroom breaks to say “hi.” They interrupt my class to ask me corny jokes with pun-tastic answers. They come by to try to sneak attack me with a hug and ask if they can come back to 6th grade and be a part of my class again. Sometimes they just slip into my room and try to blend in with my current class.
My first class at this school made bets on how fast they could make me quit. Now I have students who want me to tell them which class I like more and if I’ll stay forever.
Unfortunately, I can’t stay forever. Next year, the district will split the school into two and I will be forced to go elsewhere (I don’t know where, yet). But God, in his infinite kindness, has decided to make this last year a sweet blessing to me, with kids who leave sweet notes and gifts on my desk instead of taking things from my desk.

Confession of a Wrong

I must confess to a mental wrong doing: I am guilty of a hurtful and possibly harmful judgement made on a boy in my class. I am not telling this story to try to explain away my crime, or excuse myself. I am telling this story so that others might recognize their own symptoms of stereotyping others.

This young boy appeared on my classroom roster before school started, but he did not come to class the first day. His cousin did, though–a cleanly dress, tall girl with glasses and colorful school supplies. I asked her where her cousin was and she simply rolled her eyes and said, “he wants to pretend we aren’t related.”

He did come to school the second day. As soon as I saw him in the hallway, I took a breath and thought, “oh, boy.” He had a face that looked much more mature than an 11 year old should, but not in the “I know better than to cause problems” sort of maturity. His solid jawline and squarish features indicated that he was either older than the others in the grade, or that he simply matured, physically, much faster than everyone. Either way, it screamed trouble to me and gave me flashbacks to some of my most difficult students of previous years–the ones that ran gangs and got girls to do things that 11 year olds are much too young to be doing.

He smiled broadly at everyone–the kind of smile that was less friendly and more mischievous–and stepped into my classroom with a swagger that madeĀ  him look like he owned the room.

That smile never left his face as he squatted with his feet in his chair and raised his hand to volunteer to read out loud just before saying, “psych!” And pulling his hand down.

When I asked him to sit properly in his chair, he jokingly tried out several positions with his feet on the desk or wherever he knew would be bothersome.

His cousin sighed loudly across the room.

I wrote him off after only 2 attempts to call on him, deciding that he probably wouldn’t give a reasonable response to anything, regardless of the fact that he raised his hand constantly. I gave up on him before the first week of school had ended.

But I was wrong. And this isn’t a “people can change” story. No. This boy didn’t suddenly change his attitude. He is still the playful kid he always was.

But in an attempt to be “fair” I called on him the second week of school to answer questions. “Nah, I don’t want to answer,” he said with a smile and yanked his hand down. I gave an internal eye roll and looked to someone else to answer, but then he said, “I’m just kidding, I’ll answer.” The next string of words that came out of his mouth proved to me that everything I thought about him was exactly wrong. Not only had he been paying attention to our class discussion when I thought he had tuned out, but he had solid insights to offer.

I called on him more often after that and was greatly impressed with his level of positive participation. The one thing he still would not do was read out loud (though, he did manage to psych me out about it a few more times).

But even that barrier got crossed eventually and I realized why he was much more comfortable playing games instead of reading. Three syllable words were not easy for him. And as I listened to him struggle to read a few sentences out loud in front of the class, I realized that it took a lot of courage for him to go through with reading instead of psyching me out.

We’re into week 5 in school and he has become a lot more comfortable with trying, even when he sees those big words and knows he’ll stumble in front of everyone. He keeps that mischievous smile on his face and volunteers more than most students to do/answer/read anything. And I am so grateful that my first impressions of him and my reactions to him did not harm his desire to try, do, and learn.

Thank you, Michael, for teaching me a valuable lesson so early in the school year.

NaPoWriMo

It’s National Poetry Writing Month! And you know what that means!

 

It means that school is almost out

But the kids are getting antsy.

As each day gets warmer outside

I have to try harder not to get angry.

 

It’s not that they’re so terrible

But they squirm and want to play.

No one wants to sit still for hours

When outside it’s such a nice day.

 

Sometimes I lose my temper

Though I try to control it a while.

But even when they drive me crazy

There’s always a few that make me smile.

Kiera 001
Alayah 001

911

I called 911 the first time back in 2010 when a car exploded in front of my apartment at 2am.

IMG_0212

Don’t worry, I called 911 before I took the picture.

The second time, it was because my friend was bitten by a bug and didn’t have her EpiPen on her. And I’d like to take this moment to tell anyone who is prescribed one, please, please carry it with you because it is terrifying to watch a friend not be able to breathe over a bug bite.

This week, I had to call 911 for a third time. This time, it was for the police.

For those of you who don’t know, I work in a rough neighborhood school. In fact, as soon as school started up in August, we had a window smashed in the kindergarten hall. Our on campus police officer stays busy, as do the Behavior Management Technicians (BMTs). A surprising number of my students have at least one parent in prison right now, and a few of our 8th graders come and go from jail like it’s a second home. Last year, I had a student steal money from my pocket, and thanks to a student threat and a police report, I now know that a “chopper” is a gun (I thought I was being threatened with a chainsaw).

On Thursday, I left the school at 4:30, stopping to say hello to a former student of mine at the front doors. The school counselor had informed me that his 19 year old sister was murdered two weeks ago by her boyfriend, and I wanted to make sure he was okay, but I couldn’t find the right words to say past, “How are you doing?” to which he said, “Fine,” and left it at that. Without wanting to push anything, I smiled and said goodbye.

As I drove out of the parking lot, I passed a stopped car at the entrance. A woman in the passenger seat put her hand out the window and waved at me. I stopped my car in front of them, thinking maybe they had broken down, but as soon as I stopped, their car moved forward and came to pass me. I rolled down my window as they passed to see if they needed something. The woman in the passenger seat was sobbing and called to me, “Call the police!” but before I could make sense of the situation, the man at the wheel drove off, turning right onto the main road and toward ‘the hood.’

I grabbed my phone and started dialing 911, but then a thought occurred to me: “How are the police ever going to find a moving vehicle? What do I tell them? It was white with a temporary license plate that was too faded to read. The windshield was shattered like someone had thrown a big rock at it and the back driver’s side window was out. But would that be enough for them to find the car?” I had to be able to tell them where it was going!

So without any further reasoning, I turned right, following them into the labyrinth of narrow streets around the school, all the while, listening to 911 ring for so long that I thought I had dialed the wrong number.

The car turned down a narrow street right next to the school and I followed. But as soon as I did, survival instincts kicked in and I realized that this was a horrible idea. I stopped my car. As soon as I did, the white car stopped as well. And then it backed up and started making a 3 point turn.

My life didn’t flash before my eyes. Possible news headlines did. “Teacher killed in her car after calling 911 on a suspicious driver.” I looked around and thought to myself, “I”m going to die. This is where I’m going to die–in a little narrow road less than a block from my school. Will anyone even see me die? God, are you done with my life? Is this all I was meant to live?”

Thankfully, by this time, the 911 operator picked up on the other end and distracted me from myself just long enough to stumble through the sentence, “This woman in a car told me to call 911, but then the car drove off.”

“Okay. Don’t follow the car,” she told me.

“Oh. I am.”

By this time, the car came past me again, heading in the opposite direction. I didn’t know whether I should hide the phone and pretend I hadn’t called 911, or to show them that I had, in hopes of deterring any further problems. The woman still screamed from the passenger seat, “Call the police!”

On the speaker phone in my lap, the 911 operator said, “Can you ask her why?”

Before I could do anything, the car pulled back out onto the main road, cutting off traffic and causing a school bus to honk its horn. ”

“They’re gone,” I told the operator.

She asked me several more questions: “What did they look like? Was there any drugs, alcohol, or firearms? What clothing were they wearing?” All with the most bored sounding voice that made me believe that no police were even going to bother coming. For a minute, I thought about rushing back out there and following them again to make sure something was going to be done. Did the operator not take it seriously? Did she think we were being over dramatic? Will I ever know if that poor woman got help?

And then it occurred to me: Those people had come from our school parking lot. Chances are, one or both of them had a kid in the school. Was one of our students going to go home to that? Whether it was a domestic dispute, abuse, rape, or kidnapping that I witnessed, chances are one of our students was going to feel the consequences of it.

I cried and prayed my way back home to my safe and peaceful apartment (not the same place where a car exploded), wondering what was happening in my student’s homes that night.

 

Ghosts of the Past, Hopes for the Future

Before the school year began in August, I had a series of nightmares (as I often do before something big happens). In these nightmares, I was trying desperately to teach a new class of bright and joyful students, but the ghosts of my last class kept interrupting. They walked all over my room in their ghostly forms and made such a racket with their banging and talking and complaining, that I couldn’t teach my new class.

Of course, that’s just nonsense brought on by my own worries for the new school year. I looked forward to the opportunity to teach a new group of students who were much better behaved than my last class of crazy kids.

Just before the school year started, however, I received word that I would be teaching remedial reading in multiple grade levels across middle school, including, but not limited to, my students from last year–particularly, some of my most challenging students from last year. Suddenly my nightmare seemed more like a premonition than a silly dream.

The first few weeks of school went a lot better than I had expected, though. Most of my students were excited to be working with me and I felt relieved to know that I could build off of the past to ensure a better year for all of us.

But last week, everything changed again. Our school received word from the district that we had too many teachers and too few students. Two teachers needed to be transferred out to another school and everyone else was going to be shuffled around to cover the changing classes. Within that week, I went from teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade reading, to teaching 6th grade Language Arts exclusively. And just like that, my past students whom I both loved and dreaded were cut out of my day, like ghosts.

Sure, they’re still alive and making plenty of noise at the end of the hallway. I can still hear them when they go to lunch. And every so often, I see them walking between classes, or ducking around the hallway during classes, trying to avoid the Behavior Management Technicians who act as bouncers for the school.

It’s a bitter sweet feeling to let go of them so soon (and yet so late considering I already had them one full year). And now, as I transition into 6th grade Language Arts, I know that I’ll never have a class as difficult as that one (God willing), but I’m sure to always be surprised by the students handed into my care. I can already tell, these 6th grade students are going to be an interesting time–like a party at a zoo.

I Survived!

When I first started this school year in my new school, I was warned by all that it was not going to be easy. I had blindly signed up to teach the hardest class of students who had run off so many teachers before me that they didn’t even know what it was like to learn.

The few teachers that stayed for more than a year were called survivors. The ones that fled before Christmas break were called normal or sane.

Even with all the warnings, I could have never been prepared for what I walked into on that first day and every day after. Between the verbal abuse of the students trying their best to make me cry and the constant threat of physical fights breaking out in my classroom, it was hard for me to maintain order well enough to teach.

But I am happy to say that I am a survivor! I went through the fire of October, February, May, and everything in between, and came out on the other side–alive, exhausted, and maybe just a little more refined… or at least in some ways. My awareness of new profanity has certainly increased as well as my understanding of colloquial terms for topics I have never wished to discuss with anyone. Ever. But in terms of my perseverance and abilities in the classroom, I have become refined.

There has been a lot of learning and teaching and learning even more–on my part, I mean. The students have been fighting against learning all the way. But I have been picking up all kinds of little pieces about their life and culture. Little phrases that they say a hundred times a day have become ingrained in my brain. Things like:

Triflin’ “you’re triflin'” “that’s triflin'” or “they be triflin'”
Petty (used in the same way as triflin’)
“That’s doin’ too much” (meaning I don’t like what you’re doing)
“Why are you wri’in’ so disrespectfully” (meaning sloppy) “That’s just extra” (meaning unnecessary, or more accurately, I don’t want to do this)
Fleek (beautiful)
“Look how you feel!” (You should be embarrassed)
“Rachet”
“Rusty/dusty”
“Turnt up”

One line I really like is when a kid asked me, “Why are we called colored when you guys turn all different colors? You’re red and blue and purple…” as someone who turns splotchy red when emotional, I couldn’t disagree. We’re pretty colorful people. Of course, I tried to tell him that the term refers to the amount of melanin in the skin, but that doesn’t really negate his point.

Most interesting insults that a student has thrown at me all year-
First place: voodoo doll
Second place: cracker star

Best compliment from a student:
weirdest teacher

Best critique from a colleague:
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re like a Mary Poppins. And I like Mary Poppins. But a spoon full of sugar isn’t going to fix these kids.”

I have come a long way since my first day of teaching in the ghetto of Charlotte. My understanding of the kids, of their culture and upbringing, of the most unfortunate circumstances that affect them all, has grown exponentially. As dark as some of those fall months were and as much as I dreaded some mornings, I know that God had me go through it all for a reason. It was His strength that got me through every day. And now that the year is done, I am stoked for my next year teaching in the same school.

Because I am a survivor. I didn’t run away and I have signed on for another year. The same God that gave David his fearless courage to go against a giant has given me the courage to teach the most difficult student (even if I have to do it from a bit of a distance because he likes to pickpocket me.)

I learned so much this year on the west side of Charlotte, but I still have a lot to learn. I think another year is what I need for some more refining. Bring on the fire!

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