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Commentary: Teaching While Black and Hopeful

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We've all heard the dismal statistics. While the national graduation rate hovers around 70%, graduation rates in most urban areas is barely 50%. And if you're a Black male, the picture is even more grim. State and local educational budgets have been slashed, and teachers all over the country are being laid off. The system is going through a difficult time, and as usual, we are the ones feeling the pain... In the midst of this, we are heading back to school and hoping our children will succeed in spite of the difficulties. As a teacher, with less money and less resources, I'm hoping to turn water into wine. I always refer to the beginning of the school year as the honeymoon. Teachers have taken the summer to regroup and are ready to go. Students are hopeful that this year will be their year. Supplies are brought, hands are raised, teachers greet students with smiles, and everyone is on their best behavior. During those first few weeks of school we are feeling each other out, and let's face it, we both hope this relationship works. Inevitably, though, something happens that shatters the calm and signals that the honeymoon is over. Last year, my fourth year in the classroom, the honeymoon lasted nearly a month. My students were wonderful, which was surprising to many who had heard negative things about my school; it's one of the lowest-performing schools in the district and is right in the middle of South Los Angeles. There are challenges, but I came to the school with very high hopes. This school also happens to be in the neighborhood I grew up in, so I had a particular connection to it. About a month into the year, my schedule changed and instead of teaching one intervention class for students who are reading far below grade level, I was given two. Teaching intervention classes is a labor of love. Not only are the students sometimes reading on a second or third grade level (and are in the 7th or 8th grade), they also have several other challenges that inhibit their ability to focus. Last year many of my students admitted some very heartbreaking and alarming things. One student, an 8th grader, admitted he had fathered a newborn baby and was scared to tell his mom about it. Another, also an 8th grader, was afraid she could be pregnant because she'd had unprotected sex with her boyfriend. A student told me she was depressed because less than a month after her father was been released from prison, he got locked up again. And yet another asked what could be done if she had no food at home. These issues are not limited to only my students -- these are the challenges many students face day in and day out. Some are able to cope and succeed, but many don't make it and end up falling through the cracks. It's easy to write students off or stereotype kids because of where they come from, their family, or how they look. I see it daily. The things some of my coworkers say about some of my students are astounding. The tone of voice when they say -- "these kids" -- signals something other than concern. In many instances it signals pity or hints at stereotyping Black and Latino students. As a young, Black teacher who comes from the neighborhood that my students live in, my goal is to inspire... to tell them that no matter what your 'hood or home looks like you can be successful. One of the most important things I can teach my students is that they have options. My students need to know that the world is so much bigger than their neighborhood. Every day I converse with them about things other than English. I ask about future goals, what kind of profession they'd like to have, what they think their ideal life looks like. Many have never considered going to college (or living past 20). Some have flat-out told me they cannot go because it's too expensive or they aren't smart enough. When I hear things like this my heart breaks a little, but I also look at it as a chance to inspire. I remind them that I grew up in their neighborhood, didn't have a lot of money, and was still able to go to college and beyond. Sometimes, kids just need to know that it is possible for someone who looks like them to succeed. I may not have control over education policy, budgets, or what kind of life my students have outside of school, but while we are inside the walls of my classroom it is my duty (and pleasure) to prepare them for what they will encounter in and out of school. For those precious hours, I have the opportunity to change lives. And just knowing that I have the power to impact the future is an awe-inspiring task. Britni Danielle is a Los Angeles based writer and teacher. She is the author of This Side of the Wall, a blog that chronicles her struggles and triumphs as she raises her son alone.
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