My first teaching job was at one of those “if you can teach here, you can teach anywhere” schools. I taught at an inner city charter school that had the reputation of “bad, unmotivated kids.” I was warned about what I was getting myself into and was encouraged to apply somewhere else.
On the other perspective, which I found out later in the school year, a group of teachers and coaches that had been working at the school made bets on how long I would last teaching there. The bets ranged from one day to two weeks max, but that “would take a miracle.”
This was a very small high school that had about 80-100 students total. The school was two hallways and had one teacher per subject. No matter what you taught, you had every student in your classroom at some point in the day. I started a dance and art class which eventually lead to a very small dance team. The school had never had a dance or art class before, so this was new to everyone. The week prior to school starting I was briefed with what to expect. I was told these students had behavior issues, were unmotivated, didn’t listen, attitudes, and so on. The mentor that I had that was over the high school was actually very encouraging though. He said with the right teacher, the students will follow.
But was I the right teacher?
I was greeted with a couple smiles, but mostly blank faces, silence, and a gloomy atmosphere. I pushed forward and kept it simple, just how every first day of school is. I introduced myself, told them the general knowledge of where I came from, and went over the rules and procedures. When I was done, one student raised her hand and said “ma’am, all do respect, but you booge.” Not having the slightest notion of what that meant, I asked. She laughed, along with the rest of the class, and said I’d figure it out. I smiled and carried on (story hack: she became one of my favorites). That evening I googled booge on urban dictionary and it means “Sell out, stuck up, puttin’ on a front.” I giggled when I read it and knew with time, I would earn their trust.
That evening I brainstormed what I wanted to do the next day. I had fun “get to know you” games and activities planned, because that’s what I learned in college, and not trying to bash my education degree, but they set you up for a perfect world that doesn’t exist, anywhere. I had to get creative. I had to take a risk. After coming up with the idea, I went straight to the store and bought a ball of yarn. I know, what could I possibly have done with a ball of yarn that I can honestly say made such a big difference with my connection to those students?
The second day of school started with a writing assignment. Oh man, you can probably imagine the choice of words and complaints I heard. Asking high school students to write on day two, how dear I! I had them write and answer three questions.
- What is your favorite childhood memory
- What is your biggest strength? Weakness?
- What is a struggle you have been through and how did you overcome it?
I did give them warning that these answers would be read out loud and to write as much or as personal as they would feel comfortable speaking to their classmates. I do not know if they actually wrote what they were supposed to be writing about, but their pencils were moving and I took a deep breath.
I left that activity alone for the rest of the day to give them a chance to work on it at home.
Before class started, I cut the ball of yarn into different sizes. The ball of yarn I bought was the type that changed colors every foot or so, which made each piece I cut a little different. I passed out a piece of yarn to every student and left one for me. I took mine to the front of the classroom and begun to answer the three questions I gave them the day before. I answered the questions in full and honest. I was trying to set the tone and make it a judge free environment.
Surprisingly, their eyes were on me and they were listening. I had their attention, on day two.
After I was done speaking, I asked by volunteer if anyone wanted to come up and share their answers. Luckily, I had a couple that instantly raised their hands. After each student spoke they would tie their piece of yarn onto the last person that spoke, making a semi-circle around the classroom, all connected. This isn’t a fairy tale though, I had a couple of students that joked through their turn and gave off the wall answers to make the class laugh. I didn’t let this phase me. They got up and said something, that was an accomplishment in my eyes. I did have one young lady that said “this is stupid and corny and I’m not going up there.” After asking her once more, she refused and I let that be that. (Fast forward to the beginning of year 2, she asked on the first day of school if I would be doing the yarn activity. She was the first volunteer to speak the following year.) The ones that did share blew me away with their honesty. I heard positive stories of their childhood, fun memories with their families, how they perceived themselves, and I heard them compliment themselves. I also learned about their hard times, parents in jail, drugs, abuse in their homes, personal struggles, and their insecurities. I learned a little about each one that I could start to form a relationship with. When everyone was done sharing, I asked the young lady that didn’t speak to join the circle and tie her piece of yarn with the last person that spoke and the other to my end. I wanted her to know she was still included and wanted in this circle.
I expressed the importance of understanding that every person comes from a different upbringing. No matter what the person looks like, dresses, how they speak, they all have memories which have built them into the person they are this day. I went over the strengths and weaknesses that they all spoke about. I explained that one’s strength was another’s weakness and vice verse. This is a powerful tool and they could learn from one another and help each other out instead of using it against them. Most importantly, everyone struggles. I think everyone at some point walks around envious of another person’s life. We think our life is hard and others get a walk in the park. No one is living a perfect life, even if they try to portray it. Finally, I expressed that this classroom would be a judge free zone and everyone has the right to feel like they could express themselves with their own purpose. We started the activity alone with our single piece of yarn, felt vulnerable, and did not know what was going to happen. At the end, we were all connected and felt a bond with each other. “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”
I’m not saying this solved everything and that from that moment forward I had no behavior problems. I will say it was a changing point and made them think without even realizing what was happening. As time went on, I did learn how to speak to them, when to give them their space, how to be someone they could rely on and eventually someone they trusted.
You limit yourself in finding the good in people when you judge someone based on another’s opinion or their preconceived reputation. Some of these students were given a harder hand to play in the game of life and are still trying to make the best of it. I went in to that job trying to make an impact on them and yes, I do believe I did, but I took so much more from them than I could have imagined. Everyone said I was crazy for taking the job, but it was one of the best decisions I have made. Others didn’t think I would last and it was my pleasure to prove them wrong.
“But even an ordinary [person] can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”―Miep Gies
– Lisa Elaine
*All pictures have been approved*