#FYTP: Teaching in an Urban District

I’m starting off a new series here on the blog called #FYTP or more specifically, #FirstYearTeacherProblems. I’ll be recounting various elements of my first year of teaching in hopes that someone out there finds them entertaining or relatable.

My high school graduating class was white. There’s really no other way to put it honestly and I find that when you say it bluntly like that, it catches people’s attention. For some, race is a part of a conversation you shouldn’t bring up at the dinner table. For me, I want to talk about it.

When I went to college, I felt like I had stepped into a different world. Our campus’ student body was incredibly diverse and my practicum courses had me teaching in urban districts across Rhode Island. I volunteered with students of low-socioeconomic status who had never left the state while wearing a dress I bought in Italy during a vacation with my family.

I felt ridiculous. I felt privileged.

One year, one of my suitemates was taking a course on race and had to interview a couple of us. I remember her asking me, almost word for word, what do you do with your black friends that is different than with your white friends? I remember looking at her and breaking out into one of those nervous laughs, the kind you can’t hold back. Oh my god, I thought, I have no black friends.

Now, that isn’t true. At this point in my life, I do have a somewhat diverse group of friends. However, when I was asked that question, my mind went back to highschool, to the close friends I’d had for the majority of my life. My mind went back to my hometown. The answer was clear: it was all white.

We live in an incredibly diverse world. To say that racism and prejudice don’t exist is like saying hate doesn’t exists. On the other end of that, saying we can stop racism and prejudice is like saying we can stop hate. Unfortunately, it’s not possible. We can, however, do our part within the system to make things better.

I teach in an urban district. Many of my students do not look like me. Many of my students have difficulty understanding some of the things I say, or when I talk too quickly. Because of this, when considering the curriculum I teach, I have to make sure that my students are receiving an equitable education. I have to make sure that my students can see themselves in the texts we read. It’s not enough to tell them they can do great things- I need to show them people they identify with, who have done great things. That is my job. It is a challenge I welcome everyday, because I know that I am a better person because of it.

I make it a point to remind my students that they have power in our classroom. They have power over their own education and their own decisions. The world is not about to do them any favors. Most days, the world is going to act against them. Because of this, they need to be their own best advocate, and an advocate for others.

It’s my experience (so far) that teaching in an urban district comes down to two things: the positive relationships you form with the students and the safe environment you establish within your classroom. You will never know what these children are experiencing when they leave school, unless they feel comfortable enough to tell you. You cannot teach students you don’t know. I’m making it a goal to consider my actions, my choices, and the narratives of my classroom. Every student deserves to have their voice be heard.

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