From the Trenches…My Class

Let me tell you about my school

What education looks like “from the trenches” and with my homeroom class:

I teach at a dropout recovery school that serves mostly inner-city kids. These kids cannot be in any other school, either because they are sex offenders, are on parole, have been homeless and away from school too long, are felons banned from other schools, or they have emotional, psychological, behavioral and/or learning disabilities that propel them out of mainstream schools to be at my school. Many of these kids have been pushed along in the public schools and are then bounced out of the public school to avoid having their low test scores affect the overall performance record of the public school.

I Cannot Wear a Tie.

I cannot wear a tie as a teacher at my school, because it is too dangerous, as it could be used to strangle me. My fellow teachers and I go through rigorous training every school year to learn how to break up fights, learn safe restraint techniques, and deal with the behavior and safety issues that come with a school full of kids with “issues”.

Drama is the operative word at my school. Many of these kids thrive on it. Marijuana can be a routine in the homes of many of these kids, while paying rent and regular meals may not be. At my school, teachers know our students’ parole officers better than we know their parents and too many of our kids are parents.

Don’t get me wrong.

The school really isn’t as hellacious as it might sound. But, it sure is a dose of reality.

For some of these kids, our teachers are the only reliable adults in their lives. I learned that, for some of my students, I’m the only consistent male adult in their lives. It can take months just to get our students to begin to trust any of the adults at the school, but more often, it takes years of knowing these kids before they really trust us. They may be a constant source of challenge, frustration and aggravation, but their responses to my school’s environment are the only responses they know.

These Kids Have Seen a Lot of Abuse.

These kids have seen a lot of abuse, whether it be from negligence or unstable home environment or chronic homelessness or the more nightmare-provoking kinds of severe abuse from crappy parental figures or other wretched adults or relatives in their lives. If there is a common denominator for these kids and their parents, it is usually abuse, e
ither by neglect or far, far worse. It became clear to those of us routinely working with our students that child abuse may be the single greatest negative factor in the small world of our school. The saying that it takes 5 to 10 years to rid of the negative affects of abuse in a family is proven repeatedly during our school year.

“…it takes years of knowing these kids before they really trust us.”

While the typical teen has maturity issues, these kids have those kinds of issues in spades. Most are stuck in a middle school maturity age, even though their eyes have seen situations that only very mature adults can handle.

Behavior is an ongoing topic.

Some students want desperately to learn, but are frustrated because they are so far behind. Almost all of my kids have learning disabilities they do not understand that block them. Other students are only at school, because a judge ordered them there and they are hellbent on doing anything they can to get kicked out of school for the day, hopefully taking some buddies with them when they exit. Those involved with gangs do not see the school as serving their needs at all, because a school and education does nothing to help a gang to survive, so they treat the school as an enemy of their gang. Rival gangs at the school mean there is a need to keep some kids separate from others. Sex offenders require separation from the vulnerable. Violence-prone students need to be watched constantly.

When these kids have a dollar, they spend it, because they don’t know if they will ever have another dollar in their hands. Many have learned to resent anyone who has a dollar in their hands and will take that resentment out on others.

Classroom scene by Norman Rockwell

We do not give homework, because no one will do it.

Their parents aren’t even likely to encourage them to do their homework. Our objective is to help them learn enough to graduate, which means helping them pass standardized testing or get their GED before we have to send them on their way at age 22 years old, when state law says we can no longer include them in our education. The other objective we’ve adopted is to teach them enough to help them get a job and manage their own life, as best we can, because most have never seen either in their own lives.

While some of my students’ parents are not very supportive of the school, other parents can sometimes be outright opposed to our efforts. Because they did not have much education in their lives or are from homes where education was discouraged and never had a job, they have come to loathe having their offspring do things they do not understand. Sometimes they even fear jobs, believing that jobs come with evil bosses trying to wrongly use employees. Their parents grew up with no examples of seeing good come from education, schools or jobs.

It was my job to teach math to these students.

Some had never progressed beyond simple addition, even though they were pushed along to high school by their public schools. Others may not have had much in-school progress, but they were quick to grasp the concepts. My classroom of kids required private tutoring to handle each unique level and learning disability.

It was rare to have a student with any understanding of math in their daily lives. Teaching them some kind of understanding of money became a quest for me. We called it “financial literacy” to appease the education regulators, but it was really the life skills these kids need to survive. The concept of a budget blew these kids’ minds. And, when they learned about taxes, they were stunned…flat out speechless, which is a rare state for most of these kids. They could not understand why anyone would give away their money that they earned to help pay for assistance for others or any other community need. They absolutely could not wrap their heads around this. They were completely unaware of where the money for government programs came from or even that many of their parents could be getting government funds meant to help their families survive.

Most of my kids really didn’t know a lot about how it worked to get a job or hold a job.

Surviving gangs or abusive parents or finding ways to get food or marijuana or clothes took up most of their time.

My kids had no concept of saving money to buy what was needed in the long run, because they largely lived by going after what they needed right now, in the moment. They really had no idea of any other way of life, because they never saw anything other than living in the moment. For many of them, the world beyond their world was a world they knew nothing about, but they sure knew to resent it and sometimes hate it, because that was the only message they ever received. While that may be true of most people, to dislike or mistrust what you don’t know or understand, these kids had that message drummed into their heads from a very early age, as did their parents.

The gangs or adults around them sometimes needed these kids to believe everyone else was bad, so they could look good.

It becomes fairly clear that my students lack any kind of organizational skill, when it comes to being prepared for class or a good life beyond class. But, their street savvy is remarkable and, for them, that is the survival skill they will embrace. The very kids unable to remember to bring a pencil to class are the same ones that can manage an organized gang beat-down of a classmate who wronged them with the tactical efficiency of the military.

“They could not understand why anyone would give away their money that they earned to help pay for assistance for others or any other community need.   They absolutely could not wrap their heads around this.”

The discipline at my school is pretty lax for the daily routine and me and other teachers railed against that regularly. Violence is punished, but the kind of rules necessary for an efficient classroom are often ignored. Our school management insists they could only get the kids to come to school if they made it easy for them, while we, teachers, insist that getting them to school doesn’t do a lot of good, if we can’t teach them or aren’t preparing them for a world with a lot of rules. But, most of our kids really have never had rules applied to them, other than street rules, because it was too hard for the public schools to get these kids managed, let alone to be obedient.

For public schools, most of these kids meant extra funds from the State for each kid with a learning disability, which the public schools are more than willing to take. But, public schools found that trying to teach them was too hard, when each of these kids really needs one-on-one attention, so they didn’t bother with education or rules. My fellow teachers and I really believe these kids needed more discipline and structure, but have to admit that the battle to instill this with kids, who rarely had any type of structure in their lives, would be a tough one.

Teachers Try to Combat Years, Generations of Misinformation

My students rail against their situations in which they feel hopelessly trapped, but, at the same time, they fear anything outside of their situation because they have never experienced how a successful life outside of their world operates, other than hearing stories of the ills of venturing to that world. It is heart-breaking to watch my students crave freedom, but have no idea that the world they cling to is the very cause of their lack of freedom. My fellow teachers and I, along with the charity that often partners with our school, try to combat the years and generations of misinformation these kids have heard and try to show them how to escape the lives to which they feel both bound to and abhor.

The Need for the Public to Understand This Situation

My words are not meant to bring about either pity or hand-wringing. The need for the public to understand the atmosphere at my school and the viewpoint of me and my fellow teachers and our students is crucial to help bring about the changes needed to rescue these students from generations of abuse, neglect, lack of education and poverty.

For the sake of confidentiality for my students, no actual names are used and I write under a pen name. Any similarities to the names or situations in this article and that of people you may know is coincidental.

About this Author ~

John Keating holds a masters in education and math and has taught for 15 years in public and private schools, along with his current years at an inner-city charter school and drop-out recovery school. John also began an after-school introductory programming class and a chess club for interested students and has been known to play soccer with his students at the annual student-teacher game. His interests outside the classroom include golf, travel and rebuilding computers. John and his wife have two children in college and are active in their church youth ministry.

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