Mr. M, who’s appeared on supteach? in the past has agreed to share another one of his posts! He teaches 4th grade at Watts and provides perspective on what it’s like to teach & interact with students in an urban setting.
This year, when compared to the previous three, has been trying for the simple fact that I have never had a group this difficult, and I’m not even talking about academics or behavior (Well, these have been issues too but are less magnified). I mean their lack of basic study habits and their importance in terms of how much these things reflect the amount of concern they have for their grades, and more importantly, the repercussions toward their respective futures.
During lunchtime last Wednesday, a veteran teacher and I observed my students as they lined up in the cafeteria. He has subbed for me in the past, and it was his guess that my three toughest kids to deal with (who were easy to point out as they were being told multiple times by our staff to stop talking and fooling around in line) had less than ideal conditions at home, and that my most exemplary child (who was just as easy to point out) had both parents at home, and involved ones at that. Much too often this is the case, so I agreed.
He was right about the former opinion, but the latter one was answered the next day during after school tutoring. And it showed me that life can mess with your head sometimes.
For three days a week we hold after school tutoring so the kids can do their homework under my supervision and their peers’ guidance to ensure it’s not only complete, but correct. For the aforementioned challenge kids, tutoring presents an opportunity for them to get help in the classroom if they cannot get that support at home. In addition, they eat snacks that I bring, get the chance to use the computer or play educational board games, and hang out with their friends. The class environment after school is a lot louder and way more relaxed, but if this is what it will take to get kids to do their homework and start feeling more confident in their work, then so be it.
Last Thursday, tutoring time was extended because my most outstanding student was working on her first PowerPoint presentation, and much to my surprise, one of my usually challenging kids wanted to finish his essay before he went home. Couldn’t say no to that.
The first child has everything a teacher could ever ask from a student. Listens to every word you say. Unselfish with the help she gives her peers and humble about her achievements. Completes everything with nothing less than her best effort and is attentive to detail. And compared with the other 29 kids in my class, entered my room in September on grade level in everything. So it came to my shock when I asked her if she wanted to take home a copy of the PowerPoint software to work on with her mom and dad, and she said, “My parents are separated.”
Really? I thought to myself. No way. Not her! As I came to grips with the truth, I then began to wonder that despite the maturity and poise she has shown to all of us, how deeply has her father’s absence hurt her inside, and how deeply will it affect her in the future? It was definitely not what I expected to hear as I called it a day and the three of us exited the classroom.
At this point, time had flown so fast that I didn’t notice the sun had already come down. While the first child’s mother had arrived to pick her up, no one came for my other student. As anyone could imagine, a nine-year-old boy walking three city blocks alone in the dark in South Los Angeles is probably not the safest thing to do, so I walked him home. During this time, I learned more about him in those five to ten minutes than I did reading his cumulative file and talking to his previous teachers.
One thing I always knew is that he was an honest kid, and outside of the classroom setting that night, he began to open up. He admitted that he doesn’t have anyone to tell him what he should be doing at home since his mom works, his brothers are always out, and his dad isn’t there. He also told me that he wants to improve his English because he sees that people who speak both English and Spanish get good jobs. He also informed me that the street we were traveling on was very dangerous. When I asked him why, he told me that last year, a policeman told him to run inside before people started shooting in the streets and a man was shot dead in the head. When I asked him where this happened, he pointed to the ground and said, “Right where you’re standing. We should keep walking.” Very introspective child, but the most sobering part of it all was how commonplace it sounded coming out of his mouth.
I can only imagine what these kids go through on a daily basis, and when they grow up, how much they are willing to fight for their futures. Broken homes, organized crime, and street violence are as prevalent as the grass is green. These epidemics have evolved into something normal down here. Moreover, the range of emotions exhibited by the people of the community toward these problems vacillate between hope, despair, anger, normalcy, and indifference. And it makes me think of the kids who are currently in or have gone through my classroom. Which one of these five states of mind will fuel their approach to adolescent life in Watts? I’m finding out every day.