Last year when I stepped into my new school for the first time, I knew things would be different. As someone who had grown up in a middle class, suburban community, I was anticipating my experience teaching in an urban school where I was the minority would be a bit of a culture shock. And I was both right and wrong.
The culture shock hit me hard the first few weeks. I had to adapt to the world of fist fights and cursing. I started becoming surprised when a student did what I asked the first time, instead of complaining or arguing with me about it. I started my teaching career in a global pandemic, so the second semester brought about the first time since student teaching that I got to see students without masks. It became evident to me how important it is for us to be in the classroom as opposed to a zoom call.
I remember one time when a particularly nasty news article came out about the violence at my school. Of course all of the students saw the article and were sharing it around. I had one student come up to me and say, “Why are we all just ‘bad kids?’ Why can’t they talk about the good things that happen here?”
My students aren’t all “bad kids.” In fact, none of them are. Social media and the toxic culture that they live in have driven some kids to fail classes and exhibit violence. I found myself saying that I have the best students in the world. They just have to believe that they can achieve greatness.
We are pumping thousands of extra dollars into poverty-stricken school districts and not seeing results. Why is that? Our kids have after school and weekend programs, teachers who pay for food and supplies out of their own pockets. Why do my students still think they’re going to grow up worthless?
Research indicates that minority students can absorb negative stereotypes about their own abilities. Low-income students are likely to be surrounded by adults with low levels of educational attainment and limited life prospects. And when a thirteen-year-old girl grows up in a situation where her father is absent and mom makes a living by selling herself, of course she’s going to think there isn’t much more to life.
So what can we do? How can I, a middle school music teacher, save education?
Well, I can’t. But I can do my best to impact the students I see in my classroom every day. I’m lucky to have instruments as a tool to show kids that they can do something if they set their mind to it. This past year, my beginning orchestra students were shocked to see what they could accomplish if they just put effort into it. I worked with my homeroom students on math and science, helping them to pull their grades up. They started realizing they didn’t have to strive for D’s, they could earn C’s, B’s, and yes A’s. With teachers’ support, a student can do anything.
As urban educators, we have to change the school culture. When the school culture is positive, student achievement rises, test scores improve, and students flourish. We can get students at or even above grade level on reading and math. They can start thinking about a future where they are successful and that doesn’t have to mean that they go to college and get a degree. It could be as simple as getting a job in a trade
Of course, it is a huge job. We can’t change a school’s culture in one year. It takes multiple years with a dedicated team of teachers and administration, working together to get the parents on board. It doesn’t matter if they are millionaires or living paycheck to paycheck; all parents want to see their children succeed in life. And what’s a better definition of the American Dream than seeing a child come from nothing to achieve greatness?