Saturday, January 27, 2018

A Hard Truth

Dear Reader,

Thanks in advance for reading this post. Here’s some context for your consideration. 

In writing this piece, I’m not looking for answers or solutions from you. I’ve been a teacher or administrator in inner city schools for twenty plus years, and I often don’t know what to do. I’m not expecting you to have answers to my questions, my wondering, or my musings. Although if you do have some ideas, please feel free to share-I could use all the help I can get. 

Instead, my purpose for writing this post, and all future posts is simply to bring awareness to the edu-blogosphere that schools like ours exist, and our students have names, and stories, and hopes, and dreams, and struggles. I love reading about so many amazing educators, doing phenomenal work with outrageously creative and wonderful students, at tremendous schools. AND, I want you to know about our school too; even though not all the stories have a happy ending. Most principals and teachers in inner city schools aren’t on twitter, but there are so many schools like mine in cities across America, serving thousands of students in underrepresented communities. 

The purpose of this post is simply to say we are here, and we are dealing with tough problems, without any clear solutions. And if you think about these stories for even a minute beyond reading the post, or if you share it, or tell someone about it, then my students, my teachers, and our community isn’t invisible in that moment. And I can’t ask for more than that. Thank you for reading.

I have a 9th grade student; R, who is very difficult in school and at home.

Our building is a square, with all the classrooms around the outside of the square and open in the middle. R can most often be found, running around the outer edges of the building to avoid classes and adults. R is very immature, and very whiny when he’s confronted with his inappropriate behavior. Sadly, he’s not so nice to talk to. He is prone to angry outbursts, and over-the-top temper tantrums. As educators, we don’t often say this, but the truth is-R isn’t a very likable kid. And, in addition to not being particularly likable, and his bad behavior, R can barely read. He’s fourteen years old, and he’s only a slightly better reader than my own six year old, first grade son.

Can you imagine not being able to read? I can’t-not really. I love to read. I’ve always loved to read. Reading keeps me sane, and I make time to read every night, no matter how exhausted I am from the day that was. There are certainly classes I struggled with in school-but reading, well, I can’t remember a time that being a reader wasn’t a part of who I am. But for R-reading hasn’t ever been a part of his life. It’s like the books at the library are all in locked, glass cabinets. He can see in, but he can’t get to them. And if he could ever get to the books; what could he do with them?

This week, R was having a particularly difficult day. He skipped multiple classes, and ran his normal route around the building. As I mentioned, our building is a square, so as long as I position myself along his route, eventually, he’s going to run right into me-and that’s what happened. As I brought him to the office, the cursing began. “Fuck you, bro.” was the main insult that came my way repeatedly. It went on and on, and escalated in volume, to the point that my custodian/basketball coach came into the office to try and calm R down. No luck there either. I left the office, to handle another issue (fun day!), and my PE teacher tried to speak with R. Upon my return to the office, every adult within earshot said in my absence R had threatened to “beat the shit” out of my PE teacher and out of me.

As an aside, just in case you are wondering, people threaten to hit me fairly regularly-I usually hear that threat a couple of times a week. But I’ve only ever been purposefully hit by a student once in twenty-two years, and I’ve been threatened at least a thousand times. That one time getting hit wasn't any fun at all, but my point is, although I hear it all the time, it’s almost always just an empty threat.

As R escalated his behavior, I asked my secretary to call his mother to come in and meet with us. When she arrived, R’s behavior got significantly worse, and he directed equal amounts of ire at his mother as at me. We sat down in my office, and R began by turning his chair away from me. I’ve got a bunch of tools in my toolbox to encourage students to de-escalate their behaviors, so without offering every detail, we got to the point where R was sitting quietly and listening.

I began. “It’s time for a hard truth.

You can’t read.

You’re expected to graduate in May of 2022, and you aren’t going to. You’ll drop out before then because you can’t read.

You can’t get a job, because you can’t read the applications.

You can’t do any tasks that require the most basic reading skills.

You’re going to be living with your mother for the rest of her life, because without being able to read, you have no choices, and no opportunities.

You show up at school, but being here isn’t the same as learning. You can’t read.

You can say ‘fuck you, bro’ as many times as you like and you still can’t read.

You can threaten our PE teacher, and you still can’t read.

You can threaten to hit me, and you still can’t read.

You can run around the building day after day and you still can’t read.

We might be able to help you, but you won’t let us, and you still can’t read.”

I continued. “If I could go to your elementary school and yell at them for passing you through to us year after year, I would. I can’t imagine what it feels like to sit in classrooms day after day, year after year, and not be able to read. It must be so scary and I know I’ve never felt anything like that.”

I never got into a fight when I was a kid. But I’ve always been able to punch with words. I joke sometimes with my students and staff about words hurting. But I took it a step further than just hurting. I eviscerated a fourteen year old boy. By the time I stopped talking both R and his mother had tears running down their faces. Was I too harsh? I wonder what you, the reader, thinks about my words? Perhaps you speak to students this way also? Or maybe you aren’t in schools where these conversations need to happen? What bothers me is not that I made R cry, or that I had to speak harshly to him. What bothers me is that I’m the first person to have this conversation with him. His mother knows he is a struggling reader, but she hasn’t ever spoken to him in this way. And what about his former teachers and principal? I don’t know. As I mentioned, R isn’t particularly likeable. He’s just the kind of kid that gets passed on, whether he learned or not.

So now what? Honestly, I have no idea. I don’t have anyone on staff who who is reading certified or has any idea how to teach a fourteen year old to read for the first time. My current plan is to pull him out of science class as often as I can, and teach him how to read myself-as best I can. To be clear, I’m not a reading teacher either. But I am a learner, so I’ll do my best. Can we help R? I really don’t know. I don’t ever give up on students, and I’m not starting now. But the mountain ahead of R is pretty damn big.

R is my most disruptive non-reading student, but he isn’t my only one. I have three. R, another 9th grader, and a 17 year old, who is trying to repeat, 9th and 10th grade classes, and take 11th grade classes, while barely being able to read-all at the same time. I’m supposed to know what to do. I’m supposed to have the answers. But I don’t. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears. Oh, by the way, in addition to these three students who are essentially non-readers, I have another another seventy students across 9th and 10th grades who read between a 2nd and 5th grade reading level. Any suggestions? How similar is this to your experiences?

These are our students and our challenges. As I’ve mentioned, the work is incredibly hard. And when we fail, students end up living in poverty, or in jail, or with the life they have to have instead of the life they choose. Time to get back to work.

Until next week….

1 comment:

  1. Eric, I am both humbled by the experience you shared and in awe of the work you are doing as a school leader. I am not shocked by the conversation you had with a R and his mother, I am saddened that it didn't happen sooner. I haven't ever led a school in similar circumstances, but I was an elementary teacher in an inner city school and I wish my principal had the courage and conviction you have. If only I had a supportive principal like you, I might have had these conversations with students and parents in 2nd or 3rd grade when there was time to do something. I don't have the answers either, but I believe that you are doing right by your students. I hope that by raising awareness to your leadership struggles, we can collectively support you in coming up with solutions. Thank you for your vulnerability, leadership and willingness to continue showing up for your community (not sure many leaders would continue to do this in the face of countless physical threats). I look forward to following (and hopefully finding ways to support) your work from week to week. - Alyssa