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School as Home, and the Unwritten Job Descriptions of Teachers in High-Needs Schools

A couple of years ago, I taught the "worst" class of my entire career. They were sophomores, like every class I taught that year. Individually, there were a lot of kids I liked in that crew (kids with whom I've gone on to have even a better rapport in the time since)--but as a group, they had what I can only describe as bad chemistry. They fought with each other constantly; they ignored me; they cursed out the special education team-teacher with whom I was working; they tagged up the desks with graffiti. A couple of the guys had terrible tempers, and managing their angry and unpredictable outbursts made me feel like I was walking on eggshells in my own classroom. When the principal and other higher-ups from the Board of Education would come in, instead of feigning interest in the class-work (as most groups of students would have, under those circumstances), they'd ask, "Why are these people here? Tell them to leave," as though we all spoke some other language that our visitors would not understand.

Midway through the year, the administration switched our team-teaching situation. I'd been working with a female team-teacher--who, I have to emphasize, was highly experienced, admirably competent, and deeply knowledgeable about her subject. I point this out in order to explain that the change in the students' behavior that occurred after the switch was not due to any deficit of hers: Rather, it was due to the fact that her replacement was male. Suddenly, the arguing and backtalk dropped down to a fraction of what it had been. The cursing (mostly) stopped. The class became markedly more copacetic. The main thing the students seemed to like doing, now, was transparently trying to pit the male team-teacher and me against each other: They'd ask for something from me, and if I refused, ask him, or vice versa; sometimes a group would refuse to talk to one of us, and demand that the other be sent over, then change their preference the next day.

Initially, their change in behavior made me cynically focused on what I perceived as their sexism--the class was 85% male, and I thought, "Typical. Only a man earns their respect." It was only later that I saw that, in some sense, it was more what this male team-teacher and I represented together that was important. In some way, we had become "mom and dad" (albeit, extremely hetero-normatively) for these guys. It was not only evident in their antics of trying to play one of us off the other; the young men in our class could sometimes be calmed down by "man-to-man" talks in the hallway with my team teacher, after which they'd come to me for hugs, band-aids, snacks, what-have-you.

I was reminded of this when reading a couple of articles this week. The first, an NPR story, discussed the results of a longitudinal study of kids growing up in Baltimore, which found that family cohesiveness and money were the two most important factors in determining whether or not a student could have a successful life. A stable, intact family trumped the influences of rough neighborhoods (such as prevalence of illicit drugs). Children in stronger families had a greater chance at social mobility, even if they were poor to begin with; poor children of single parents mostly stayed poor. The study underscored the need for stability in poor kids' lives, and suggests that if this family stability isn't found at home, students may seek stand-ins in other places, such as their schools.

To that end, a New York Times opinion piece a couple of days ago entitled "Teaching is Not a Business" asserts that strengthening the personal bonds between students and various adults--teachers (individually and in teams), mentors, parents, and school leaders--is the only time-tested method of creating measurable gains in student achievement. The current reform initiatives, all based on testing and implementation of new technologies, ignore this fact; instead, public school system leaders are persuaded to spend billions of dollars on high stakes tests and computerized learning modules, without evidence that a "market-place approach" has ever yielded noticeable gains. The best systems, the author, professor David L. Kirp notes, "love bomb" students with adults who care about them--Big Brother/Big Sisters, community mentors, teachers who communicate with and check up on them routinely. The efficacy of these strategies underscores students' needs for a "family" to look out for them, for the stability of being surrounded by adults who care about their wellbeing and can urge them forward towards their goals.

For teachers, this represents an added layer of responsibility, one for which we can't expect recognition within our formal evaluations, but which is nonetheless a vital component of doing our jobs well...particularly in high-needs schools in poor areas, where children are often coming from unsteady home lives. Administrations would do well to promote such an approach through professional development that helps teachers develop rapport with students, engaging community resources that may be able to provide mentoring, internships, and other guidance for students, and offering clubs and other ways for students to have access to more adult-supervised time during the school day. Creating a "home" at school, a safety net for kids who may have limited parental supervision or positive role modeling, creates the best chance for students to succeed.

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