I thought I knew, but I had no idea…

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 14 2011


I realize I have not written a blog in about 6 months and that’s because I didn’t really know what to say. I have had a tumultuous year with highs and lows even the rocky mountains can’t compare to. At my lowest lows I didn’t really want to blog because I was afraid of being raw and painting a negative picture of my job and this very reputable organization. At times, I didn’t even feel like I could put a positive spin on the things I was experiencing. Now I realize that it’s okay to be real because these are the real challenges I face and anyone who is thinking about doing this work or supporting me really needs to understand the good, the bad, and the ugly–no matter how much of each there is.  The point of today’s post is not to recap my experiences over the past 6 months. I don’t feel that I would be able to truly retell it with the emotion that I felt at that time. However, in the future I hope to expose that vulnerability.

The real purpose for today’s post is to talk (or rather type) aloud my thoughts, concerns, and questions regarding  the eye-opening and shocking events that occurred today.

Today, I truly realized how over-exposed my children are. Most people would assume that 9 and 10 year olds, no matter what their SES, still have some of that childhood innocence. Regrettably, I realized this is not the case.  Two of my 9 year old students were involved in criminal acts that completely shocked me. I was shocked to learn that they even have the knowledge to engage in these acts and shocked that they have the audacity to do so at school. As a teacher, I have tried so hard to steer my students in the right direction. I named my tables after colleges, I call my students collegiate scholars and I’ve given them visuals of their actions and life outcomes. I have even appealed to their materialistic side by displaying how much money they could make for each level of education they earn. I tell my students they ARE going to college, they have no choice. I try my heart out, but it doesn’t seem like enough. Either somewhere I went wrong, or no matter how much positive influence I give them all day, it is all negated once they walk out the school doors.

As a former MSW (master of social work) student, I am left thinking that my sphere of influence as a teacher only goes so far. I do have an innate desire to protect these students but more importantly I want to empower them.  I struggle with how to empower my students to say no, to overcome their challenges and to surround themselves with positive influences. Especially when their developmental age makes them so vulnerable. I may be at school showing them the right thing, but school is a very foreign environment than what they live in daily. I am not there when they are being approached by gangs and peer pressured to commit crimes. Especially when these people are their own  family members who they’ve already invest their trust in.  Who would listen to a completely unrelatable teacher over their own family? I am asking them to trust me when, if I were them, I probably wouldn’t. I mean think about it, they are surrounded by people who are involved in these things and that’s their life. They don’t see anyone they know living any differently. While it shocks me, it is their normal. Do they know that better exists? And if they do, do they know how to achieve it? Do they think they can achieve it? Either way, it is way more than any 9/10 year old should ever have to challenge.

I struggle with how to really get through to them, how to really make them see that there can be better. Their brains are programmed right now to see no further than one minute ahead. And I’m asking them to see into their future…way into their future…8 years into their future. I can’t even think 8 years into my own future. Even if they do develop goals, they lack the concrete understanding of how to reach those goals. They use generic terms like “work hard”, “study”, “be good”, but yet they can’t articulate what those phrases really mean. In my class, I constantly say “showing is better than telling”. If you want someone to do the right thing you show them versus telling them. I feel like I need to do the same. I’ve done a lot of “telling” them what they should do and how to change their lives, but I haven’t completely shown them. Sure I have shown them how I do it and how people like Obama and P. Diddy did it, but that’s not really showing them in their world. Unfortunately we lack a lot of Latino/a role models due to their under-representation in the media. And with most of my students being Latino/a, I am not able to connect to them and their worlds. And honestly, I probably lack knowledge of their culture and their realities.

My social worker side tells me that teaching, while important, is not the way to help these kids. I need to be there during the times when the teaching runs out. I need to be there in their worlds, actively combating the negative in it’s natural environment. However, my teaching side says that education its the way to transform their lives. The only way to end the cycle of poverty.

So here I am stuck in the middle, with no clear direction. I know I can’t physically do both…well I don’t really know that. My idealistic/superwoman perspective makes me believe I can be there for them in both aspects, but then the question remains, when would I be there for myself, my friends or family? I am guilty of being overly compassionate, putting all of myself into helping others but how can you not when they are innocent children who’s lives are literally at stake. My roommate shared with me that when they are building new prisons, to estimate the amount of space they need they look at how many 3rd and 4th graders are below grade level in reading. And if they are not on grade level by 4th grade they have a 2 percent chance of graduating college.  Clearly they need me to teach them, but clearly based on today’s events they also need me outside of school.

Ahhhh! Do you feel my frustration. I just keep talking in circles because I honestly have no idea what to do next.

I will leave you on this note, please, whatever you do, do not become desensitized. No matter what environment is present, it should ALWAYS be shocking when children are engaging in activities that only adults should have knowledge of. Too many times I hear people say, “We’ll it doesn’t surprise me, look at where they live, look who their parents are.” This reaction is the brains way of trying to rationalize these events, it is a coping mechanism. But if  we allow this coping mechanism to work to the point of  desensitization, change will NEVER occur. We have to feel uncomfortable, we have to feel shocked, we have to feel like there is something morally wrong with what we are observing before any revolution can be born.

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