Soft Like Baby Talc

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose12 Comments

I keep telling some of these “educators” that they can’t tell me nothin’.

John Holland recently talked about the differences between urban and suburban education as it concerns one’s demeanor. In many educators’ eyes, they think just because they have a dream that they can go into any school and magically transform children into shiny, happy people. They have this vision that somehow their idealism can save Black and Latino children from their desperate conditions and just having a little exposure to a new form of teacher will undoubtedly make them want to do better for themselves and improve their communities and become the shining beacon for their whole generations.

It doesn’t quite work out that way. Urban education requires a little more discipline. Where other children may come ready to learn and focused, many of the children I teach neither have parents who value education that much nor have people in the family who’ve gone beyond high school (or even middle school). Just the other day, we had a child who was going to the Dominican Republic at the start of Memorial Day Weekend … and continued in for two weeks! There’s no reinforcement of classroom rituals and routines at home with many of my students.

There’s also a barrier that exists that limits the types of things teachers can do (some teachers in smaller towns visit their students’ homes. WOW!). Most of all, though, kids are not just kids: every student is a product of their environment and they have different internal metrics for whether you measure up for what their teacher looks like.

In other words, if you don’t cut it, you’re getting cut, plain and simple. It doesn’t mean you need to scream at them all the time, or have militaristic tendencies (some prefer that), but it means you have to demand the respect first and foremost before you can even shed some of that tough exterior. I can personally tell you that I’ve seen the softer approach tried by teachers and they’re constantly berated, shown disrespect, and have little to no learning happening in those classrooms. Once I get them the next year, or another teacher whose got a solid backbone, they learn how to learn.

See, if you really care about the students in your classroom, you’re not just teaching them curriculum; you’re teaching them about life, and how there’s a need for balance. Yes, that “look” is often amorphous, but the energy behind it is unmistakable. The lack of equilibrium in their lives can only be matched by someone willing to see them for who they are, and working from there. Thus, I can usually quell any questions I might have about the way I handle my class with a clear conscience.

Here’s hoping that when I continue to find my way through this labyrinth of education, I won’t lose touch of what it really means to be in a classroom.

jose, who wonders how people can rush to judgment through a teacher’s first post, but I guess that’s what happens when you’re coming from on high …

p.s. – I’ll discuss the other side later on, but comments are open. Go on.

Comments 12

  1. Not sure I get the part about urban education needing more discipline.

    I’d say discpline is needed no matter where you teach in order to achieve this…

    “See, if you really care about the students in your classroom, you’re not just teaching them curriculum; you’re teaching them about life, and how there’s a need for balance.”

    And when I say discipline, I’m not just talking classroom management, but self-discipline as well. Teaching is a hard job, especially when we focus on what I quoted from you above.

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    Well if I can quote myself, when it comes down to it, Tracy, I think it’s great that so many of us are idealists, whether secretly or otherwise, but I also think in urban education, the teachers who don’t assert themselves from the get-go, they’ll get eaten alive. This isn’t to say it doesn’t happen in other places, but that attitude is more prevalent in urban communities, where it’s hard enough helping students to apply themselves. Unfortunately, I feel like people think they can apply the same attitudes in completely different schools, where one already has a community of people who have intrinsic motivation versus those not privileged enough to do so.

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    Overall, this was a response to teachers who confuse teaching discipline with trying to make them robots. Two totally separate things.

  4. Jose,

    Much respect, but I’ve found far fewer kids with “reinforcement of classroom rituals and routines at home” in my uber-wealthy suburban district than I did on East 120th St. It’s different, I understand–whereas a lot of urban kids have parents who never completed high school, etc, I’ve got a ton of kids (and their parents) who expect everything to be handed to them. An elementary school principal in my district just got suspended for an encounter with a parent that started with the principal not letting the parent bring cupcakes directly to his child’s classroom. Kids regularly roll in to the high school at 9 or 10 or even 11 am, parents excuse them for weeks at a time to go on vacation, and there’s no follow-through.
    It’s a different kind of discipline that’s needed out here in the ‘burbs. I’m not sure if one is better or worse, or harder or softer, but they’re definitely different. And I definitely don’t mean to come off as defensive; I don’t think I could hack a typical urban high school setting (let alone middle school). But I definitely think I can learn a lot from reading about what you do, which is why I’m such a fan of your blog.
    Keep on keepin’ on.

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    That’s interesting considering in this city, teachers have more often than not told me how much simpler it is to teach in schools even within the city who have more well-to-do parents. Granted, you’re also dealing with brats and their parents, but they more often preferred that than the other situation. I’ve heard some horror stories in those schools as well, but I’ve rarely met a teacher who transferred from a school, let’s say, in Riverdale, over one, let’s say in my hood or any “hood.” You’re right about there being different types of discipline, and I definitely see similarities with the idea of follow-through, but my experience and the statement that was first posed to me (read #3 in comments) made me respond in gross generalizations. My bad on that premise.

  6. It’s the assumption that one doesn’t need discipline in non-urban schools, that teachers don’t need to assert themselves as much unless they are in urban schools that got to me.

    Intrinsic motivation is not something that most students come to school with at any school I have worked. And a wishy-washy teacher is a wishy-washy teacher no matter where you come from.

    And I totally agree that discipline does not equal robot-making. Holding high standards – and keeping to them – is the absolute best thing we can offer students. Not to mention the thing that they want the most from us.

  7. well ur doin what ur doin’, so keep @ it. remember that even when all of us fail on xanga, there are ppeople in real life who care about u
    Posted 3/4/2005 7:04 PM by jose – reply

    do you remember this quote? I read this while going through my archives, and wrote a post about them on my site.

    I just want to thank you for being there, you’ve proven to be a good friend in that season of my life.

    love you man.


  8. “See, if you really care about the students in your classroom, you’re not just teaching them curriculum; you’re teaching them about life, and how there’s a need for balance.”
    preach it!

    You know I think the key to this situation is how you make it clear that you have high expectations for students through your actions.
    In another post I wrote I talked about “Warm Demanders” and care expressed through Nel Noddings relational ethics.

    Care, in my school at least, is expressed differently than in my daughter’s school which is a little more suburban.

    A personal story…
    Our school recently received a student who had been put out of three other schools this year for behavior. The principal met with the parent as she was enrolling her son. the parent was in tears The principal was able to communicate that this school would not allow her son to fail. When the parent left, the principal heard her say, “All them other schools ain’t nobody care. I know if he act-up here she gonna kick his ***!” Would our principal actually do that? No.
    But that is the type and level of caring that she was able communicate. The parent felt safe bringing her son to school.
    I am not sure when or how care becomes control. Maybe it is both simultaneously.

    We have to show our kids and our parents we care in their language, not “ours” or “society’s” PC language.

  9. I’m the parent of a suburban kid, and I’ve got them marching in and out of my house on a regular basis, and I can tell you unreservedly that they need discipline as much as anyone. Any parent who disagrees will pay for sure.

    There are indeed some differences between suburban and urban schools, and the stark contrast between them has really been what’s shaped my outlook about education.

    In my kid’s schools, there are no outrageously bad teachers. Also, there are no classes with above 25 kids. There are no classrooms without computers. And the school, though old, is sparkling clean.

    Instead of hollow, empty “reforms,” I’d like to see NYC follow this model.

  10. Jose wrote:
    They have this vision that somehow their idealism can save Black and Latino children from their desperate conditions and just having a little exposure to a new form of teacher will undoubtedly make them want to do better for themselves and improve their communities and become the shining beacon for their whole generations.

    What’s even better, Jose, is that this false belief that altruistic behavior can save the world trickles into decisions made by policy wonks who are trying to find ways to “close the achievement gap” and “save our schools.”

    Think about their efforts to balance the staffing inequities between schools of wealth and schools of poverty.

    That was quick, wasn’t it! There are no systematic efforts!

    Instead, there’s a bunch of random rhetoric. We celebrate those kind-hearted souls who are willing to make their careers in high poverty schools. We threaten to forcibly move accomplished (as if that were a transferrable skill regardless of student population) from high to low performing schools.

    But never are specific actions taken to improve the working conditions in high poverty buildings to make them places where any teacher would love to work. We don’t ensure that the most accomplished principals are rewarded greatly for accepting positions in hard to staff buildings. We don’t provide extra time to teachers in high poverty buildings to manage the additional challenges that they inevitably face.

    We don’t provide extra resources–both classroom and social services—to buildings in high poverty communities. We don’t provide extra professional development to teachers like me who would love to work in a high poverty building but who know that they don’t have the skill set to succeed in one.

    That’s what drives me nuts. On a systemic level, we have to recognize that work in a high poverty building is completely different than work in the ‘burbs….and then begin to make efforts to ensure that teachers have what it takes to succeed in challenging settings.

    Why is it that our approaches are so simplistic? Is it because policymakers just don’t understand teaching and learning? The nature of schools?

    Or is it that they completely understand the nature of their electorate and recognize that doing anything to advance conditions in high poverty schools is going to tick off the highly connected members of the community who are likely to run them out of office when resources are redistributed equitably as opposed to equally.

    Interesting questions for a Thursday morning…

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  12. Hey I like the blog…

    It’s so true. I grew up in P.G. County Maryland which at the time was the second worst school district in the country, and we once ran through 3 teachers in a week! The school couldn’t find a teacher willing to take on the incredible task of “taming” our class. Teachers were bribing us with snacks, treats, juice, everything and it still didn’t work.

    That was elementary school.

    But my best teacher in elementary school Mrs. Dyson must have been a genius because she managed to make learning fun while being tough on us but still respecting us and not treating us like bad ass kids.

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