Friday, February 18, 2011


This is my first post since January 1, which was two days before I started my new job as a middle school ELL teacher. It's February 18, 12:05 pm, and the kids have just been dismissed so that we teachers can have a half day of professional development.

I feel like someone just handed me a snorkel. I am just now surfacing. I can breathe. I can write.

Overwhelming is a mild term to describe my transition from teaching reading to teenage boys in the juvenile justice system to working with English language learners between the ages of 11-13. Let me make this clear assertion: teaching in jail was way easier than this gig. The kids knew the drills. They knew that if they stepped out of line, there were clear and foreseeable consequences, and so they pretty much behaved. Most of the time. But here, in this level 4 school, in this socioeconomically stretched city in western Massachusetts, things are a bit more dicey. This is an academically underperforming school. There's a general lack of motivation among the kids and, perhaps in a greater sense, among their parents. In very real, tangible ways, there are big behavior issues. There is neglect. There is truancy. And then I also get to deal with those added layers of a language barrier and the age-old challenge of the creature that is the tweenager.

I keep calling this the molotov cocktail of teaching jobs. It's kicking my ass in ways I've never quite felt. These kids have tested me as though I were a 22 year old student teacher. In my first seven weeks here, I've seen a student stabbed with a pencil, had things thrown across the room, watched my materials get broken, been called many unsavory names in Spanish, and, oh yeah, had a kid--somehow--post a picture of an erect penis on my computer (that happened on my second day. it was unforgettable). And throughout all this nonsense, I've had to remind myself that I'm supposed to teach these kids English, not just play defense.

I think a lot of people would turn and run, or go get a real estate license, or find a good therapist. I've felt all kinds of things over the past 7 weeks, but defeated is not one of them. One of the reasons I wanted to work in a community like this one is that I know there is goodness and potential in these kids. I know that they haven't been given a fair shake. The odds are against them, and statistically, they are highly likely to fall prey to a long list of risk factors. A bunch of them will end up in the juvenile justice system, and then prison. Yes, it does suck to be them. But I believe in working for social justice, and the way that belief needs to play out is right here, in this little, hot, windowless classroom. I am sticking with this job, and with these kids, and when we all return from this blessed winter vacation, we will be refreshed and recharged. And ready to learn.