Education Teacher Leaders Network

Portrait of a Young Urban Teacher

By Ariel Sacks — September 24, 2008 9 min read

Every city in America is host to a significant number of “under-resourced,” “high-needs,” “inner-city,” and “high-poverty” schools. These terms hang heavy in the air as we speak them and linger on our minds when we stop to imagine what they mean.

Teachers who work at these schools, like myself, don’t have to stop to imagine. Every morning at 6:45 a.m., unlike most of my peers from high school and college, I leave my New York City apartment and enter a public school that has been labeled “failing.” Having attended only middle class suburban public schools myself, some of the conditions I have taught in more closely resemble those of third world countries I have visited.

The basic needs of the school and its community may not be met from one day to the next, creating a constant sense of instability. Students, teachers, parents, and principals all have reason to be angry over what often feels like an unworkable situation. These undercurrents of anger, even violence, are constantly begging to be overcome. My colleagues and I struggle daily to be competent teachers in this environment and to provide the educational opportunities to our students that every child in this country deserves.

The basic needs of the school and its community may not be met from one day to the next, creating a constant sense of instability. Students, teachers, parents, and principals all have reason to be angry over what often feels like an unworkable situation. These undercurrents of anger, even violence, are constantly begging to be overcome. My colleagues and I struggle daily to be competent teachers in this environment and to provide the educational opportunities to our students that every child in this country deserves.

A crucial piece of my job is planning an engaging, appropriate curriculum for my students. And yet, no matter how good the plan is, I have to be flexible and expect the unexpected. The school year often starts without a permanent schedule or class rosters due to ongoing vacancies and late student enrollment. On any given day, copy machines might not have paper, leaving me without important resources for my lessons. A new mandate from the district could suddenly require that I abandon my carefully thought out plans in favor of a new standardized curriculum effort that may or may not meet the specific needs of my students.

The unexpected could also come in the form of a new student, delivered to my classroom in the middle of a lesson with no warning and no indication of that student’s needs. The school may not receive copies of IEP’s for students requiring special services until months later, if at all. And on one morning that I’ll never forget, I entered my school building and learned that one of our eighth grade students had been shot to death the night before. In fifteen minutes I would have to share the news with my homeroom students and help them to grieve. I know I am not the first or last teacher to meet with this kind of news on an otherwise regular workday morning.

Though I never quite get used to the ups and downs of group life in a high-needs urban school, through persistence on a number of levels, I am able to make progress with my students. Ahead of all else, my priority is creating a structured, inclusive environment through which I may get to know my students and earn their trust. My students are accustomed to disappointment, especially from adults. They anticipate possible rejection and—preferring that it come sooner than later—they test me to see if I will fold under the pressure. Every year, at least one student (and sometimes a whole class) asks me, “Are you going to leave this school?” or “Are you going to lose your temper?” or “Are you going to start crying?”

Two lessons I had to learn quickly to survive are: Don’t give up, no matter what -- I must demonstrate persistence, especially if I hope to see it in my students. Don’t take it personally when students exhibit what I interpret as negative behaviors -- most of the time, it’s not about me, so my job is to understand the reasons for my students’ behaviors and find ways to help.

Becoming a teacher

As a new teacher, advice and support from experienced educators who understood the context I was teaching in were indispensable to me. My pre-service training at Bank Street College and ongoing mentorship through its Partnership for Quality program helped me to sort out what my role as teacher was, my feelings about my school and my students, and finally, to begin to understand how I could purposefully help my students develop as learners.

During summers, the Partnership for Quality funded me to plan with my Bank Street faculty advisor. We mapped out a setup for my classroom that would accommodate the functions I wanted my room to have. It revolved around a U-shaped meeting area in the front of the room made up of three large benches and a rug. This area would provide a space for meetings, lessons, and discussions. Behind the meeting area were round tables for students to work independently or in collaborative groups. This was an unusual setup for a middle school classroom, but many of my colleagues and administrators came to like it. Each summer, I reflected with my advisor on how it was working, and what needed further development.

Four years later, I believe my structure is sound. Class begins with five minutes of defined social time for the students, complete with rules of appropriate social conduct. Then I ring a Tibetan meditation bell, signaling for all students to sit down in the meeting area. I start by going over the day’s agenda and answering any questions the students may have. On a normal day, I proceed with the day’s lesson in the meeting area, before sending students to tables for independent or group work. Towards the end of the period, the bell calls students again to the meeting area. We share and reflect on the work. Finally, the students assess how the whole class did in each of four categories: agenda completion, quality of work, student jobs, and following the Golden Rule. We record a number for each category on the self-assessment chart that hangs on the front wall, an ongoing reflection of our process.

This classroom practice also helps accommodate the unexpected. On many a day, the meeting becomes a place to discuss issues or occurrences that may interfere with our regularly scheduled plan. Sometimes, it provides opportunities for students to negotiate how class time will be used that day. If a disruptive incident occurs in the classroom, I often call the whole class for a meeting to discuss it. Not only is this structure practical, it also teaches students to be part of a group, to make decisions for themselves and reflect on them, and to begin to take responsibility for the well-being of the class. Day after day, this solid routine offers enough flexibility for students to voice their ideas and concerns. As we weather the various storms around us, my students and I develop trust.

Learning to make a difference

The job of getting to know my students extends beyond the classroom. I need to understand the places they come from and the experiences they bring with them. That way I can create curriculum plans that effectively build on the knowledge students already have and push them to new levels in their English language skills.

In my first school, I led eighth grade students in a study of the East Harlem neighborhood that surrounded us. Students were able to see aspects of themselves in this study, transfer knowledge of the familiar, and share ideas that have lingered just below the surface of their consciousness. But they also practiced making qualitative and quantitative observations, developed interviewing skills, and explored journalistic writing. Finally, by the end of the study, my students began to understand and be amazed by the vast diversity of the East Harlem community, which was reflected in our classroom. In our concluding discussion, a student, whom I will call Yarina, excitedly blurted out, “We, like, make history— here, in East Harlem.”

After three years as a fulltime teacher in a Bank Street Partnership school, despite the visible progress my team was making with the students, the unexpected happened. The state called for a restructuring of the school because the school had failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for a number of years in a row. Our program was pushed aside in favor of a standardized curriculum directive. Three of us who were former interns from Bank Street College all took positions at a new public school in Brooklyn that also serves a high-needs population.

We collaborate regularly, and I am also sharing aspects of my practice with two other English teachers at the school. I am confident in my pedagogy, which is soundly based both in experience and educational theory, as I’ve worked to adapt it to the needs of my new student population. There are days when I do want to leave, lose my temper, or break down and cry. But when I find myself close to that precipice, the unexpected comes yet again.

Last spring, it came in the form of two eighth grade boys I’d been trying to understand since September -- whom I’ll call Oscar and Joel. Neither one had read more than a paragraph at a time all year, and they’d written even less. I felt like I’d tried every strategy in the book with these boys but still made no progress. Then I introduced a new novel study to my classes. Continuing a tradition I started in East Harlem, just this once the girls read a novel with a female protagonist, and the boys read a thematically related novel that features a male protagonist. The beginning assignment was designed to get acquainted with the novel and embark on the reading journey. As always, I instructed students to write their responses to their reading on sticky notes.

Though most of the class quickly engaged, I didn’t expect much from Oscar and Joel. Offhandedly, I suggested they sit together and take turns reading aloud, then I moved on to confer with other students. A few moments later, I heard a quiet murmur of boys’ voices rise above the silence in the room. It was Oscar and Joel—reading to one another. I was speechless, and evidently, I was not alone, as one by one the rest of the class took notice of the small miracle of the day. I captured the moment in my journal:

“This book is whack!” Oscar says loudly. I walk over to him and tell him to write down exactly what is whack on a note and stick it to the page in the book. He does it! And then, they keep on reading!

It’s hard to describe the pleasure of a moment like this; but suffice it to say, I’ve spent years developing a spine of steel to handle all the ups and downs of working in “high-poverty” schools. And yet, at such a moment, it can all just melt away. This is why I stay in teaching. I can never say I’m bored, and I can never say I don’t make a difference.