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Teaching In Baltimore City

February 15, 2013

©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead

From 2005-2007, I worked as a middle school Advanced Academics Social Studies teacher at West Baltimore Middle School. As a mid-career changer (I worked as a documentary filmmaker for ten years), I did not really know what to expect when I walked into the classroom. I believed that I would encounter a room, full of excited students who wanted to immerse themselves in the study of American history. I envisioned two rows of students lined up at my door, dressed in white and blue starched linen dresses and shorts, carrying their writing tablets and instruments, and bringing me red shiny apples. I thought my students would love me and would see me as a fountain of knowledge and wisdom. This was my dream!

Unfortunately, my dream and my reality (which always happens to me) were not in anyway similar to one another. In fact, on the first day of school after fighting to get in the front door of my school, breaking up two hallway brawls, being called at least two of the words on my “Don’t Say” list, and accidentally bumping into a student who thought I was trying to frisk him, I realized that not only was this not my dream I actually felt that it was not my life! Those were the most difficult and most fulfilling years of my adult life. I cried almost everyday during that first year. I realized that these students—the ones who were angry and me and the world, the ones who could not read, and the ones who were growing up in extremely impoverished conditions—were the future. These students who struggled to understand even the most basic of concepts were one day going to be responsible for deciding the fate of the world.

I remember walking through the cafeteria while the students were forced to have yet another quiet lunch and realizing that I was afraid of the future that they were going to create. I could not understand how these students—who came to a school everyday that had bars on the windows, no doors on the bathroom stalls, no toilet tissue or soap, no vegetables or fresh fruit in the cafeteria, no books in the library or art supplies in the art room, no pencils, paper, or text books–could ever be trusted to create a world that I would want to live in.

I did not blame my students, as they don’t have control over the schools that they must attend, I blamed the system. I blamed the city  and in so many ways, I blamed myself. I probably could have and should have done more, though at the time, I thought I was doing all that I could do. I probably should have stayed instead of going back to get to my Ph.D. and then escaping to the golden tower of academia. I could have and should have done more. If I want them to be able to create a world where I want to live then I must be willing to roll up my sleeves and work with them and for them to make their world (the one that I am currently creating) better for them.

My life was full of contradictions because even though I taught in the Advanced Academics program (there were 120 students in the program and 70% of them are currently attending college!), I worked in a school where most of the students were neither advanced nor interested in pursuing their academics. I remember when I was selected to receive the 2006 Maryland History Teacher of the Year Award because of my work with my students. I was both happy and sad: happy because my AA students were smart and confident and fully capable of carving out a life for themselves (because being smart and being recognized for being smart meant that they would have choices and opportunities); and I was sad because as hard as I worked for my 120 students, I did very little for the other 1000 students in the school who were reading below grade level and were not prepared to attend either a college-prep or a technical school.

In Baltimore City, by the time a student is finished with the first semester of their eighth grade year, they will know whether or not they will attend college. Since their high school acceptance is based upon their seventh grade test scores and the grades from seventh grade and the first semester of eighth grade, if they did not do well then they will not be accepted into either a city-wide (college prep) or technical high school. Their only choice is to attend their neighborhood (zone) school, where very few if any of the students go on to attend college. These are the students who scared me the most because by the time they became eighth graders, they knew that they were going to have very few opportunities to get the skills they would need to be successful in this world.

Even though I left, I think often of all of my fellow teachers who stayed behind to make sure that no child is left behind. This poem is for them and to them:


Teaching in the inner city is not for the gentle-hearted:

it is not for those who need constant gratitude, extrinsic rewards or pats on the back

it is not for those who want to do something else.

It is not a job for the light-hearted:

for those who never see the light at the end of the tunnel or the peak at the top of the mountain;

for those who do not love our children almost as much as they love their own.

People who teach are different from those who have been called to teach our children:

the ones who have been labeled, left behind, looked over, forgotten, abused and disregarded…

the ones who live in communities where motherhood at 16 is a celebration and jail time by 20 is a rite of passage

Our children and those who have been called to teach them are the special ones;

They are the ones who are responsible for teaching our children not only how to speak but how to speak up and speak out.

Those who are called to teach inner city children are wired to wear and they can’t help but teach somebody something even when nobody is volunteering to learn.

They never get lost in a sea of unchecked papers, have never met a child they couldn’t teach, a lesson plan they couldn’t write, a challenge they couldn’t meet or an administrator they couldn’t tame.

They are professionals and can admit the system’s mistakes, own up to their own failures and state very clearly how it used to be, what it could be, and how it should be when it comes to educating our children.

These teachers are real and are uncluttered by the need for recognition instead preferring to do it right simply because it needs to be done…right.

They choose to teach on the edge of discovery…where creative ideas and our children tend to be.

Their work in its simplest form is sharing knowledge and giving back to the children that everybody usually takes from.

They are grounded, well planted oak trees whose branches are made up of the children that they have taught, saved and loved.

They guide our children safely from the sunset of learning to the sunrise of new beginnings.

Over time, we have learned that teaching our children and training them are two different things…those who are wired have found a way to do both.

©kaye whitehead

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