Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Assumptions about Urban Schools

I’ll begin by saying that of the six years I went to school in the US as a teenager, half of them took place in Newark, NJ; currently designated as an urban school. I say currently because since I studied in the Ironbound section, I had never really considered it an urban school until I reached the high school freshman year. My assumptions then are based somewhat on past experience, what I can recall from it and how it was over 15 years ago, as well as an aggregation of bits and pieces I have heard, seen or read from unreliable sources. Fortunately some of these erroneous and absurd assumptions are beginning to dissipate as I read more for our class about today’s urban schools.
It was during my freshman year at East Side High School that I saw more diversity between students and teachers; since in middle school most of the students and over half of the teachers were Portuguese. It was also at East Side that I felt fear, I felt threatened or oppressed depending on which building I was going to or which staircase I had to take between classes. I will note that in this case I don’t recall being afraid of Portuguese students, though some were not very innocent to say the least. What I feared was the rivalry between the ethnicities, the veiled and outspoken hymns of which nationality, race or group was better, smarter, stronger, etc; it became steadily worse after that. Here is a question for myself or an assumption of sorts: Was I not afraid of the Portuguese because I was a descendant, could speak their language and had friends among them? Did I think that if I did get into some sort of problem, that I could count on them (this group) to help me out? Why?
Recalling my behavior and what I felt is almost like watching a scene from one of the movies that always portrays urban schools as bad, as dilapidated and beyond repair. Do groups always stick together and is that something just from urban schools? Doesn’t suburbia have its own groups, just as tight, strong, rivals, dangerous? I will answer my own question, yes it does. I moved into a suburban school, a mostly Italian neighborhood where though I was a descendant from Italians as well, I was still an outsider. There was no more fear of walking in the hallways, but there was also no group there that would come to my aid if necessary. I had escaped the urban pressures, but I was not home free. My assumption is that not all urban schools are the same, some systems work better than others, some may be more oppressive, have more violence while others have innovations and programs in place yet are still labeled urban because of their geographic location and lack of resources.
I had some great teachers who cared about every one of their students, about their progress, their improvement, their well being within and outside of the school. I also had some terrible teachers whose style was to lecture to the walls, without paying attention on whether any of the students were learning, had questions, paid attention or were busy throwing flying airplanes across the class. My initial assumptions about urban teachers were: 1. that they really liked teaching, used innovative / creative methods and wanted to make a difference (the good ones); 2. Had begun working there, had done it for so long that felt stuck or simply didn’t want to move on, while at the same time didn’t care whether students were learning or not (the bad teacher); or 3. Were there as a starting point, to gain experience or eternal fear of the profession (the teacher that could go either way).
So far I am still inclined to go with these assumptions but I have added a few more to my list. For example, I don’t know if I could teach at an urban school right now. I say this because I sincerely hope to be a good teacher, and to do that I believe that the teacher has to care not only about what he/she is teaching, but about the students as well. The teacher has to be able to identify with the students as a whole and to all the baggage that they bring with them: their knowledge, their fears, their backgrounds, their culture, their environment, their families or lack thereof. I think teachers have to possess a hard coat and a soft touch; they must be able to withstand pressure not so much from students, but from the parents, the school and the system, but they must be soft or show their care and concern; their will to teach and their openness to learn.
As far as the students from the urban schools, my assumption is that they could all improve at different levels with the right teacher, method, system, and safe / orderly school environment. In the last articles we have come across, many of the concerns about urban schools are the buildings themselves; how they are falling apart, not functioning properly and acting as a distraction and impediment to learning. When I went to East Side, there was a pool on one of the buildings on the top floor which had not been working for years. Do I think that some students might show more interest if they could use the pool; if it was an option in gym class or if a team were put together? Yes, I do. Would it have made a difference for me, not particularly, I can’t swim; but not all students are wired the same way, that is not all of them have the same reaction or receive their incentive from the same place.
I don’t see urban students as inferior to other students just because they live in an urban town; they are not less capable of learning. My assumption is that if they are inferior it is because of the type of education that is available to them at that school. At the same time, there may be students who will look for ways to learn outside of school by going to a library, museum, or tutor. Just because they are there doesn’t mean it is by choice, it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable or willing to improve and do better; but may be just lacking an opportunity. I don’t think though that all urban students intend to graduate and go onto college or other scholarly professions or schools, just as not all suburbia students intend to go on to college; but that is not to say that they cannot aspire to do better just because of where they are.
When we were talking about urban schools and towns, some of our assumptions were that people who live there are poor or at least at a lower income than those in the suburbs. There may also be people who are there because they are close to others of their ethnicity or culture; those who live there because it is closer to where they work, or more convenient because of transportation, and commodities (shopping district, supplies). Often it may consist of people who do not speak English well, who are immigrants, often in an illegal status, who have an easier time finding manual labor or jobs without skills in the centers. My assumption is that people do tend to live in niches, and these are often found to a greater extend in urban cities than in suburbia, unless these niches are more prominent.
I honestly don’t know how my interaction with other teachers in either setting would be. I would be looking for a mentor or someone I could identify with, someone I saw as trying to make a difference for students, a positive influence. My assumption is that there will always be bad teachers who can be found anywhere not just in urban schools. Actually my assumption is to the contrary. It is that currently many good teachers are going into urban schools to attempt to change the system, to break the molds and stereotypes. I would often question the system, the methods, and the changes that are slow at being proposed and even slower at taking place, so that I don’t know if the bureaucracy would win over the willingness to teach.
I want to conclude with some questions, some of them to myself, to try to decide if I could be an urban teacher. Did my experience in a Newark High School over 15 years ago really count as an urban education? As an aside the year I left was the year they placed metal detectors on all the entrances. Did living among those who spoke my language make it easier to study there at the time, because of culture and ethnic similarities? Would that still hold if I were teaching in another urban school? Just because I am from a different background and culture, does that help me to understand all other cultures, backgrounds, beliefs? Is it more difficult for me to let go of some of my assumptions because of having experienced an urban education or should that make me struggle more to disprove them?

1 comment:

MikeK said...

I think that it is natural to find comfort in familiarity in a new environment, and that could by why ethnic groups tend to stick together in many situations. They may identify with one another more readily through shared experiences and culture. I don't think it is a bad thing, unless it leads to rivalry, dissonance, violence, or anything like that. I went to a suburban high school, and although most students were friends, regardless of background, many students did form clches based on their race or ethnicity. There was a group of asian students who often hung out in the bathroom and spoke to one another in Korean. It was an unnerving feeling walking into the bathroom where a group of eight kids talking in a different language would hang out. It made me feel outcasted, which was something I didn't feel very often in my town, where most students shared very similar backgrounds as myself. I suppose the feeling might have been common for the ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minority in my school, and I can imagine that for some it could prove detrimental to the educative process. It is hard to learn when you aren't comfortable in your environment.