Guest post by Shipnia — thank you!
Whenever people who are not familiar with low-income communities in New York find out that I teach at a Title I school, their responses are most often shock—then, sympathy. Actually, I could write a book of awkward things to ask teachers who serve in low-income communities, including: “Are you doing okay?” “Do they listen to you?” “When are you going to…uh…do something different?” While I ponder the question asker’s sudden concern for my (Mental? Emotional? Physical?) well-being, their “othering” of my kids, and assumption that I must be planning on doing something bigger, better (and maybe safer?) sometime soon, I muster enough polite energy to smile big and assert, “I love my kids. It’s really great.”
I always feel forced into a corner in these situations—it seems that my only option is to smile and tell them it’s great. Why? Because they clearly already think that teaching at a Title I school is a teacher’s nightmare. It hurts to imagine the kinds of things they might be imagining are going on in my classroom and with my scholars. I discussed this recently with colleagues; they expressed that many people think teachers in Title I schools “don’t have a lot to work with.” Well–this I could build on, I thought—hm, what is it that we unfortunate Title I teachers have to work with?
My initial (and sassy) response to that question is—um, our brains. Yet, I know that this is a loaded question that deserves a loaded answer. So here goes—what do we have to work with? We have 30 students coming from a range of socio-economic situations and a range of abilities to work with—because real life circumstances happen on a spectrum, not in boxes, especially in communities where the only box available is labeled “poverty.” We have really long hours to work with—because even 14 hour days are not enough to catch up and keep up and do enough. We have high turnover rates to work with—because teaching is not for everyone and teaching at Title I schools is for even fewer. We have exhaustion and stress and worry to work with—because at any given moment, on any given day, the educational experiences of 30 children growing up in an unjust society tilted against them are on our hands. Those are some of the things that we have to work with—those are the big rocks, the heavy chips on our shoulders that simultaneously wear us down and get us up in the mornings. But—there’s more.
We have classrooms full of children who will love us dearly and who will show empathy when the going gets tough and their teacher needs a moment—because everyone is human and everyone is growing and everyone could use a moment and our children have experienced almost as many harsh realities as we have and so, they know. We have children who accidentally and sometimes intentionally call us “Mommy” and “Daddy” (and I’ve been called both)—because they spend 38.5 hours a week in our presence, learning how to read, and write, and question, and solve, and open their juices without ripping the spout, and show love both because and despite of who someone is. We have children who ask for and give hugs, who hold hands, and apologize, and bless us in their prayers, whose eyes light up when they see us in the morning, who try and try and try and sometimes try more for us than for themselves. We have children with heavy chips on their shoulders that wear them down, yet they get up in the mornings, and they come to us.
We have families who work hard to provide basic life necessities for their children and make time to be active partners in their child’s education—because we can wear many hats but usually, we need their special family hats. We have parents who trust us to be an additional family member to their child—who call for advice and suggestions, who text, and email, and knock on our classroom doors to make sure we feel supported. We have families who know that we are working to serve them and their child to the best of our abilities and who stop to let us know that our work is hard and it is appreciated. We have families with the heaviest chips on their shoulders, yet they get up in the mornings, they bring their children to us, and they work hard on multiple fronts to ensure a quality future for them.
So—what do we have to work with? We have people to work with—little people and grown people who know that life is really hard and work with us every day to do better, to grow, to make the community we’ve created and the world around us a little brighter each day. That’s really enough for this Title I teacher.