The Top 3 Rules for Teaching in the “Hood”

By: Marlena Little

Teachers have a hard job. Teaching is a challenging and sometimes exhausting profession. However, there are also moments where the light bulb comes on, or the warm and fuzzies come to the surface, and it makes every late night or early morning worth it.

No manual can prepare a teacher for their career. There are many aspects of being a teacher that even the most prestigious teacher preparation programs miss. Nothing prepares better than hands-on experience when it comes to teaching.

Throughout my 10+ years in education, from teacher to administrator, certain rules seem applicable in every situation – especially when serving underserved, high-needs students. Those with the greatest need require teachers to give their best and be at their best each day.

While this is not an exhaustive list of rules – it’s a great start.

Here are the top 3 rules for teachers who teach our greatest students!

The Top 3 Rules for Teaching in the “Hood.”
Rule # 1 – Assume the Best

In the middle of a neighborhood sits a school.  It is sandwiched in between row houses and multifamily homes, with a dilapidated building that once was a community center.  

This school is in the thick of poverty…so much so; you can taste it in the air.

“Ms. Little! You need to come and get him!”

I heard these words from a first-year teacher. There was much more in her voice than anger.  It was the top of the morning, right after breakfast.  I stopped in my tracks not just because I heard my name, but because I heard the exhaustion in her voice and it wasn’t even 9 am.

I looked up. Jason was standing there, his fists balled up at his sides. Tears were streaming down his face, and he was breathing real hard. His mouth was tight, and I saw his emotions. I didn’t want to make matters worse, so I spoke six words to him while I regained my stride.

“Come on, Jason. Walk with me”.

We walked in silence for a few minutes while I continued my morning rounds. In part because I knew he needed to calm down and mostly because I did too.
Black students, especially boys, are suspended and expelled almost four times more than their white counterparts. The other statistic is one that does not have to be refuted.  

The rate at which this happens has yielded itself to a “phenomenon” coined the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.”  The research around the School-to-Prison Pipeline illuminates the systemic failures that exist across the country, where we are left with the harsh reality that our school system is not adequately educating and preparing our black children.

According to a 2016 report from The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, excessive disciplinary actions such as suspensions and expulsions lead to school drop-out, which also costs money.  This national longitudinal report that tracked 10th graders used suspension data to estimate an additional 67,000 dropouts nationally.  Additionally, over a lifetime, one dropout costs $163,000 in lost tax revenue and $364,000 in other social costs, such as health care and, you guessed it, the criminal justice system.

This equals upwards of $35 billion nationally.

Back to Jason. Jason isn’t at the “drop-out” place yet. Jason is here, in the present, with me.

I noticed after a while, Jason’s face was drier, his hands were relaxed and he was breathing heavily to keep up with me, not from being furious. I went back to my office, sat down and began to ask him what happened.

Jason began the story from the night before, not this morning.

Jason spent the night alone and kept waking up because he didn’t want to miss school.  He didn’t have much sleep because he didn’t know how to set the alarm. Jason didn’t have any idea where she was, his mother that is, so when he saw the kids leaving for school, he felt like he should too. Jason ate all his breakfast but couldn’t concentrate. His teacher kept yelling at him, he said.

He began to cry again at this moment.

“Why are you crying, Jason?” I asked as softly and inquisitively as I could without falling apart myself.

“I didn’t take a bath last night because I was waiting for her to come home and she never did, and I didn’t take one this morning because I didn’t want to be late and everyone knows.”

Jason couldn’t concentrate on anything his teacher was saying – and at that moment, I couldn’t either.

How could Jason be worried about the question in Morning Meeting, when his mother didn’t come home last night? How could Jason hear the commands of his teacher, the annoyance of her voice when he didn’t respond when he barely got a good night’s rest because he was watching for the kids to go to school?

Jason was worried everyone knew he didn’t take a bath, when in reality if he hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known myself. His shirt and pants looked clean, his hair brushed and his face…

I didn’t get past his tears to notice anything else. I grabbed his hand and looked him in the eyes, holding back my own waterfall.

“Jason…It’s ok”.

I stood up and stooped down and gave Jason a hug.

Jason couldn’t do anything beyond what he did – which was get to school.

Being a teacher is exhausting, I know. Life happens to us every day as well, yet, we are charged to give our all each day to every child.  Teachers many times have more students than they should and fewer resources than they need. Teachers are most times stretched to the limit.

Regardless, teachers and adults in schools, especially high-poverty schools, must always assume the best. Don’t let the environment that your students live in dictate or preempt good thoughts. Assume the best in each situation – especially the difficult ones.

Why should you?

Because Jason needed his teacher to assume the best that day.

Because Jason didn’t need to be sent out of his classroom that morning. Jason wasn’t disrespectful by not listening and following directions.  

Most importantly, because Jason was 5.

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