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Archive for August, 2011

Today, a student dropped by during my plan. I had seen her yesterday with her friends, and she mentioned she wanted to see me, so I told her to stop by. I knew it was going to be a serious conversation–the guidance counsellor had already asked me if I knew anything that was going on with her.

She came in and after a bit of small talk, the big confession came out. She had cut this summer. No one knew about the first time, but the second, she got scared because the bleeding didn’t stop. When she finished telling me the story, she explained that her mom had freaked out, called the school, and tried shoving religion down her throat (She’s not really religious.) I explained to her that people turn to faith in times of crisis because it is only through faith that pain has purpose. If evolution is true, and everything is an accident, there is no reason to continue to fight against pain. It is only when we understand that there is a God and an afterlife that suffering has meaning.

I next explained that most people cut because they can’t handle emotional pain, so they try to bring their pain into an arena that they CAN handle–the physical. I asked her if that was the case with her. She nodded. (She was crying at the time.) She said, “My parents taught me to be tough and not show my emotions. When you stuff emotions for so long…it’s not good. They told me it’s weak to cry.”

I responded, “That’s bull. Sometimes it takes a lot of strength to cry because it’s allowing you to be vulnerable. Plus this (I indicated the tears running down her cheeks) That’s cleansing–that’s how you get those emotions out. Then, you can deal with them.”

I went on to ask about her home life. She explained that her parents yell at her over little things, and they used to hit her (but don’t now). She said she really struggles with anger. I explained that anger is either fear or hurt feelings–you have to figure out which one you’re dealing with so you can handle the real issue. I also explained that I was going to ask her to do something hard–forgive her family. I explained that forgiveness does not mean the person who hurt you was right–what they did was wrong. But, forgiving them takes control of you away from them. It allows the situation to quit hurting you.

I also explained to her that your blood is life–when you spill it for something, you’re giving power to that thing. Instead of making the situation better, you’re actually making it have more control over you (She’s Aztec, so she understands the meaning of blood sacrifices.) I explained that she needed to break those things over her life instead of giving more power to them.

Finally, I asked her if she had options of places to go when things at her home weren’t going well–she had to think, so I gave her that assignment–to develop a network of support for herself. Then, I gave her a hug and a Kleenex and the bell rang. Once again, I am reminded that though I can’t change the situation these kids deal with, I can give them the tools to survive–and I can show them they are not alone. Someone cares about them. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

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Last year, our reading teacher showed the movie Freedom Writers. She had told me the general idea and how powerful it was. Like a good friend, I listened, but hadn’t really given it much thought. Over the weekend, though, I checked it out, and I now echo her sentiment–and think it should be required teacher watching.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, it chronicles the life of Erin Gruwell, an English teacher who takes her first teaching job in inner city LA in the wake of the forced integration after the Rodney King Riots. She has the unfathomable task of trying to teach English to a class of kids from opposing races and gangs. Her first real break-through comes when a Hispanic kid draws a defamatory drawing of an African American kid. In anger, she explains that it reminds her of a picture she’d seen of a Jewish man during the Holocaust. She explains how these kids think they’re so tough, but there was this one gang–they didn’t take over neighborhoods; they took over countries. They just eliminated everyone that they didn’t like and blamed for why their lives were bad. After going off on the subject, one student raises his hand and asks, “What’s the Holocaust?” She asks if anyone knows the meaning–no one does. She then asks how many of them have lost someone to gang violence–every hand goes up. Using The Diary of Anne Frank, Erin is able to connect Anne’s fate to these kids’. She then has them keep diaries telling their stories. Their diaries were later published in a book called The Freedom Writers.

I think I cried though the entire movie. For me, it was like a mirror image of my students. Many of us in inner city schools approach teaching from the white middle class perspective of changing the world with no idea what these kids really deal with. I remember when I first came in lecturing students that you’re a jerk if you fight. I might as well have told them you’re a jerk if you eat dinner–fighting is a way of life for so many. One of the students in the movie lashed out, “You in here trying to teach us this stuff and then we go right back out there. Tell me one thing you’ve said that makes a (expletive) difference in what happens out there.”

I’ve been at my school for nine years and have just scratched the surface of what their life experience looks like. I had a conversation with an alum at our football game Friday. He’s now a pro-fighter and has moved out of our town to a more affluent area. He said people there are amazed that he only knew one friend from high school whose parents were still together. Only one. And that’s the mildest of the issues.

So how do we reach these kids? In the movie and in my experience as well, it comes down to being willing to find a connection and build relationship. Another quote that hit home to me stated, “Why should I respect you? Because you’re a teacher? That don’t mean [anything.] I don’t know what kind of person you are. I don’t know if you’re lying or a bad person. You don’t just automatically get my respect.” But, relationship–giving a kid an opportunity to be heard–showing that they have value. Those are the things that count. As Erin states, “I see you. And you are NOT failing.”

Knowing that a cornerstone of teenage philosophy is being misunderstood, I think it’s vital for us to let them know we care enough to try. A listening ear and an open door go a long way. As I often tell people, you have to have a lot of conversations about stupid things to have the conversations that really matter. So, I listen to stories of new puppies, video games, TV shows, and new nail polish to have the conversations about relationship drama, drug use, parent abuse, and deep hurts. If we start by listening, we might find more of our students are “teachable.”

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Today was our first day of school. I thought it went fairly well. Kids were generally well behaved, impressed with my room and my candor, and predominantly friendly and open. Ahh, the bliss of being a veteran teacher. Then, I got the parent phone call. Here’s the conversation:

“Miss Brailey?”

“Yes.”

“Hi, this is (Name). I’m Matt’s mother. Did you tell Matt you wouldn’t call him Matt and would only call him Matthew because he was rude and obnoxious?”

“WHAT?!? No!”

“So you deny this happened?”

(Dawning realization….)”No, I told students when I called roll to tell me if they wanted to be called by something other than the name I had. Matt said he wanted to be called Matt. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll only call you Matthew IF you’re in trouble or annoying…As in Matt…Matt…MATTHEW! I’m so glad you called me…”

“OOOOHHHH, I do that to get his attention too…”

She went on to explain that he is very respectful and an honor student and was crushed to think I thought he was rude and annoying on the first day of school. I offered to speak to him to clear the matter up, but she said she’d explain it. Because and If–who knew subordinating conjunctions could be so important…

A fun side note: While I was preparing to publish this, another parent facebooked me: Hi, Miss Brailey. If you have any problem out of (Student), just kick his butt, okay?

Aaahhh, parents…One of the many joys of teaching.

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Tomorrow is the first day of another school year. I have spent the last week spending most of every day at school preparing on for “the big event.” Before I get bogged down in the reasons it’s hard being a teacher, I want to focus on the things I love about my job, and why I’m looking forward to it.

1. I love my fellow staff members. Many of us have been into school every day the last two weeks. While much of that time has been spent in our own rooms, a great deal has also been spent in the hallway or other teachers’ rooms just catching up with each other. I remember when I had first gotten a job here and my parents were helping me move into my classroom, my mom commented, “People here seem friendly and happy to be here. That’s important.” It is indeed. Students come and go, but most faculty changes only slightly over the years. Additionally, we have had faculty battle cancer, have major health problems, lose family members, be in lawsuits, get married and have babies. Through each of these events, our staff has rallied behind each other. When my dad died, other teachers covered my classes and arranged my time out. I got cards from faculty and custodians, flowers from the school, and many kinds words of support. I’ve seen teachers give up their sick days for one another, teach for one another, visit each other in the hospital, and go to each others’ family funerals. We truly have an unparalleled staff.

2. I love my students. I was walking out to my car yesterday, carrying a small shelf, and one of my students came up beside me and said, “Here, let me carry that for you.” Wow. I loved that! And it happens all the time with our students. From opening doors, to hugs in the hallway, to carrying things, our students genuinely care about us and invest in us as people. We’re not “the enemy” or the bad guys. They treat us respectfully (if we’re not jerks), write notes of encouragement, and help us out when we need it.

3. I love our administration. That is not to say I always like them, agree with them, or like what they have us do. But, just today, I sat in a room for an hour and a half with 4 fellow teachers and our new administrator who took the time not only to listen to our concerns about a new program we were adopting, but to affirm each of us as teachers, explain issues until we understood them, offer support to help us be successful, and never make us feel like there was somewhere else she’d rather be. When push comes to shove, every administrator from the superintendant down has been there for me–Multiple times.

I understand that my experience is not the one every teacher has, but I think it is something new teachers should consider before they take a job. When I interviewed at my school, I came from an interview at a wealthier, less diverse, and higher paying school. The contrast could not have been more stark: Huge, white, successful, wealthy school versus small, mostly Hispanic, on probation, 75% free and reduced lunch school. But when I walked into the first interview, the principal was arrogant and condescending, while at mine, the principal asked to have the department head sit in on the meeting because, “He’s the expert and I’m not, so I value his opinion.” That fact alone made my decision. And I haven’t looked back since except to thank God I didn’t accept the first school. Maybe I’d have more money, but it would never equal the treasure I have where I’m at.

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Yesterday, I spent some time at school in what has become my annual ritual: Praying over my building. A lot of parents and churches take time to pray for their schools, but it’s different having an “inside scoop.”

See, unlike those members of the community, I have the almighty key fob, which lets me in the building almost any time. Additionally, I know the faculty and stuff personally. So, I go in on a weekend when no one is there. I walk around the building, stopping at each door to pray by name for the teacher who teaches there. As I know their families and lives, I can pray over areas where they struggle as well. Also, I pray at each entrance, bathroom, and locker room for safety and protection (A number of our fights occur there since there are no cameras.) Finally, I pray over my eighth graders’ lockers and their seats in my room. The process takes about an hour.

While I realize not everyone believes in God like I do, I’ve found it’s a lot harder to be a jerk to someone if I’ve spent time praying for them. I’ve also seen teachers have breakthrough in the very areas I’ve been praying for (Ex. One teacher who’d been separated from her husband reconciled their marriage, as I’d prayed for her the beginning of the year.) It’s a true statement indeed that where your treasure is, your heart follows. And when you invest in the place you spend every day, you can’t help but be blessed in return!

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J.J. Heller, one of my favorite artists, has a song that states, “It’s the little things that make a difference. It’s the little things that show love.” Today, as I was scraping gum off the bottom of desks, I thought about the truth embodied in that song.

There are so many things teachers do that are never noticed or even considered by those who think we’re “so lucky because you have the whole summer off.” In the midst of moving desks, scraping gum, running copies, planning lessons, touching up paint, putting up bulletin boards, and the thousand other things teachers do in their “summers off,” we sometimes don’t feel very lucky.

Which is why it’s a good thing to be reminded why we do what we do. In addition to scraping gum, I got to take a walk around the building while students were re-registering. In that time, I got hug mobbed by the cheerleading squad, had an “appointment” scheduled with a cheerleader wanted to talk to me after practice about some “boy issues,” helped a student assemble a desk chair for his mom’s office, caught up with another student about her break-up and new boyfriend, helped a seventh grader open a locker, spoke to 3 parents, and otherwise just enjoyed seeing familiar faces.

One cheerleader who will be a junior this year told me that she had recently been cleaning her room and found her journal from my class (eighth grade.) (I always tell my students at the end of the year to hide their journals somewhere where they’ll forget about them for a few years, and then they’ll find them and laugh.) She said she had re-read it, laughed, and cried over all the memories. She was so glad to have it. She said, “I think I’ll hide it again, so I don’t find it for another few years.” I love it!

The girl who had “made an appointment to talk with me” spent an hour with me hashing through her struggles and a difficult discussion she was preparing to have with one of her best friends. She explained her difficulties and listened as I shared the possible scenarios she needed to consider. It was a great discussion.

I think those two experiences truly made me look forward to the start of school. Because when it comes down to it, I scrape gum off desks and give up my “free time” and the thousand other things I do because it DOES make a difference. It shows love.

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