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The view from the front row

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

"Until the lion tells its tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter." This African proverb hung at the front of a colleague’s classroom my second year of teaching. His room was a calm, orderly oasis in a considerably more chaotic environment. Our Teach for America placement school floundered at the bottom of ranked lists for test scores and hovered at the top for dangerous incidents. I spent many a sweltering lunch period contemplating that sign, thinking not only about how it may have spoken to our students’ lives, but how it spoke to my own.

I had initially been drawn to teaching because I was attracted to the idea of helping others find their own voice. The papers I wrote for my English courses at the University of Illinois reveal an individual quite preoccupied with women writers, Latin-American writers, queer writers, and other representatives of the culturally oppressed. My Teach for America application essay mentions a desire to empower the disenfranchised. I entered the teaching profession feeling outraged, self-righteous and admittedly very, very scared.

Soon after I began teaching, those feelings of self-righteousness dissolved right away as I quickly realized that my students certainly had no problem finding their voice. Actually, the only person who was losing her voice was me! Teaching was hard. Every 10 minutes I was confronted with a challenge I had no idea how to resolve because I had no similar prior experiences to assist me.

How could I assign history homework without using the textbook? I had no idea. My own schools had had enough textbooks for each student to take home every night. What was the appropriate consequence for a student cursing me out in the middle of a lesson after I’d told them to put their food away? Again, I had no clue. My middle school used to give hour-long detentions just for chewing gum. I couldn’t seem to remember finding the Civil War all that confusing of a topic when I’d been in 8th grade; however, I’d already learned the difference between a state and a city by 8th grade, and I wasn’t sure I could have said that about all of my 8th graders. In short, teaching ate at my self-esteem.

But the outrage never really went away. The blog I kept during my first year of teaching and the reflection pieces I wrote for my graduate coursework at Penn are all filled with stories about outdated textbooks, inefficient systems, neighborhood crimes, frustrated parents, dilapidated facilities, and most heartbreaking, students so academically behind that it did no good to even think about their future, lest you became so despaired that you were tempted to quit.

My students and their parents did not need anyone to help them find their voice. They knew they were being shortchanged. They frequently complained, as they should have, about the state of the school building, the lack of proper supplies, and the ability of some of the employees in the building to do their job. I had been incredibly naive to think they would be anything but acutely aware of the unfairness dealt to them. What they needed was an audience for what they had to say. The lions, if you will, needed – and still need – listeners.

With my blog posts here at the Notebook, I hope to provide them with those listeners. A well-meaning co-worker once advised me that the only way I was going to get my students interested in American history was by telling them "all the stories." He’s right. The public tires of so many facts and figures. It’s the personal accounts that move readers to create change. Now in my fourth year of teaching (and in my second at Mastery Charter School), I’d like to use this space to feature "all the stories" of individual teachers, parents, and especially students; all of the little people that we forget when we’re too busy discussing the actions of the big names at 440 N. Broad and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Because, in the end, it’s those little people who are affected the most by those actions, and ultimately, it’s those little people who affect the rest of us.

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