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But what am I doing here?

  • Published at 12:01 am November 17th, 2016
But what am I doing here?

There is a certain image that befits a New York City teacher in the South Bronx. She is svelte, Caucasian, may or may not carry a designer purse.

She takes the public bus, sits in the back, gives up the designated seat when a walker or a wheelchair is aboard. Occasionally, she makes phone calls home, letting parents know about whether or not their children need after-school tutoring or if they have forgotten to sign a field trip permission slip.

Many of the New York City teachers who take the bus into Harlem, or South Bronx, come from programs such as Teach for America. They commit two years of their lives to teach in a high-needs school, in areas where graduation rates are abysmally low, in the hopes that their instruction will raise low-income students of colour out of the achievement gap and onto the path of success.

The statistics can be sobering -- 9% of male students of colour graduate within six years from an urban high school. One in three male students of colour will be incarcerated in their lifetime. 57% of students, who fail to get into the college of their choice because they miss the cut-off for aptitude test scores, will not obtain a two-year or four-year degree. The cycle of poverty and diminished opportunity continues.

It is akin to a rare unicorn sighting, then, when teachers of colour make their way to the front of the classroom in gentrified neighbourhoods such as Harlem. Even in the South Bronx -- predominantly African-American and Hispanic -- where the West African halal corner stores and Puerto Rican bodegas abound, a teacher of South Asian descent is unlikely.

One is asked, “Are you a coolie?” or “hablas español?” Professional development sessions stress how important “relationship building” is to the school community, why teachers ought to keep open and transparent channels of communication with the parents (notwithstanding the obvious language barriers when attempting to call or text a parent who speaks Spanish, or Berber, or Yoruba).

It is akin to a rare unicorn sighting, then, when teachers of colour make their way to the front of the classroom in gentrified neighbourhoods such as Harlem

It is stressed that we find “commonalities” to endear ourselves to our students, to make ourselves seem approachable so that the monumental task of instructing and mentoring students is made a little easier.

Any given day is a whirlpool of phone calls, text messages, and emails, about lesson plans and failing grades and behavioural intervention plans. Occasionally, a student will have to be frog-marched out of the room for attempting to throw a desk. Sometimes security has to be called because a student threatens to pull out a knife on a teacher at hallway duty for stopping her from going to the bathroom.

And sometimes, students offer to stay behind after school to help a teacher grade, because going home is too hard, because mom or dad or sister or aunt cannot help right now. Sometimes they accept gifts of candy and homework passes. Sometimes they take far too great a pleasure in filing papers, erasing boards, straightening desks, because it gives them something to do.

In those moments, those carefully scripted lesson plans are to no avail. Those professional development sessions on “building bridges” across “diverse learners” do not leap to the forefront of one’s mind.

What one may recall, in those moments, are the small acts of kindness enacted by other teachers, other mentors, those moments of kindness that changed the trajectory of a day or a week or a lifetime. In those moments, it does not suffice to ask, “What am I doing here?” because this is exactly what the late nights of grading and weekends teaching Saturday School and frustrating grade-level meetings with irate parents amount to -- this moment right here, this moment to put an arm around a sobbing student and say yes, of course you can file, stay as long as you want. I’ll be here.

Shehtaz Huq is a teacher based in New York.

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