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The kids and schools we serve – from the teacher’s perspective
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The kids and schools we serve – the teacher’s perspective 

by Sergio Plaza, City Year San Antonio '15, '16

 

In education, you’ll often hear very strong opinions on teachers and the impact they have on their students. Teachers are either credited for a student success story or thrown under the bus as to why education in the United States has fallen in global rankings. It’s black or white, but never gray.


What’s often left out of the discussion is that the profession is responsible for teaching a much more diverse population than ever before. Race and poverty, sex and gender, nationality and language, and students that are differently abled, all play a role in reaching our students, whether we like to admit it.

 

In my role as a City Year AmeriCorps Member, I have had the opportunity to learn about these factors first-hand. I had known to an extent before, but actually working with my students made the issue much more real. Hearing their stories and getting to know their personalities is a joyous experience for me every single day. Their success became my success and their struggles became my struggles. By mid-year, these students weren’t just my students. They became my kids. It’s why I came back to serve as a Team Leader here in San Antonio.

 

My first “City Year” gave me the privilege to learn much and grow not just as a professional, but also as a person. I worked alongside a lot of very talented and passionate people, many who wore red jackets just as I did. Though we all had the same training, we came into City Year with different personalities, experiences, and opinions. Those differences influenced how we interacted with our students, for better or worse.    

 

Among those I learned from are the teachers who came in every day just like me, but had more on their shoulders in terms of lesson planning, testing, and being responsible for an entire classroom. Just like our corps, the faculty at Roosevelt High School is very diverse and I’m sure each of them came to Roosevelt with a desire to help our students. That’s what matters.

 

Often in policy circles, a teacher’s voice is discounted in favor of those in academia, think tanks, and in government. Our teachers working on the ground have a lot to provide to not just their students and schools, but the national discussion on education and what our students need.

 

I had the opportunity to interview one of our partner teachers and ask him of his experience working in a school like Roosevelt and what our kids need. Hopefully it serves as inspiration to not just current City Year AmeriCorps Members, but also future educators.

 

 

Sergio: I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I know that besides inspiring young minds, you’re busy with coaching tennis and soccer and you’re also busy trying to take over the world.

 

Mr. G: Yeah, well you know, trying to.

 

Sergio: Great, so what made you get into teaching?

 

Mr. G: So I actually started in college studying accounting. I did that whole process and thought I was going to become a public accountant for the next 30 years.  After I graduated, I did two years of public accounting and realized that I hated it. During my second year of public accounting, I did some substitute teaching and that’s when I realized that this was it. As soon as I got into the classroom, I felt it was a natural fit. I was comfortable! And I toyed with the idea of studying secondary education before I started college, but I didn’t follow that path. So it took me a little longer to get into it, but why I did is that I feel like I connect with the students. They have a kind of energy. Not to sound too cliché, but I don’t feel like I’m coming to work every day. I feel like it’s an opportunity to come in and rub shoulders with these kids.  Some of them drive me crazy and I’m sure I drive some of them crazy. But for the most part, what I get out of it is not even how I affect the kids. It’s what I get out of it every day. That’s why I teach. Hearing their individual stories, their successes, and their “problems.” Some of them are very real problems and some are more of a lack of perception, I guess. But the problems they face and how they overcome them, just that entire arena of being in the school and what I get from it.

 

Sergio: Yeah, I definitely get it. I feel that energy here.

 

Mr. G: Yeah, absolutely.

 

Sergio: So you mentioned substitute teaching. How long did you substitute teach for? 

 

Mr. G: I started in the spring of 2013 and I did it for two months. That summer after, my wife and I moved to San Antonio, and in the fall of 2013, I started subbing in NEISD for the entire year. Winter of 2013, I accepted a permanent sub position here at Roosevelt for Algebra II. And the following fall, I started in my position now. So really, it was a formality of getting into the math department. I just had to pass my certification tests, get my alternative certification, and get a job here for the fall. So I substitute taught for a year in a half.

 

Sergio: Cool, I remember reading on your blog specifically that you wanted to come to Roosevelt. Before you had moved here, you did some research and decided Roosevelt was the school. What brought you here and why specifically this school?

 

Mr. G: Location wasn’t really a big issue because all the high schools in NEISD are relatively close to each other and close to where I live. I looked at the demographics of all seven high schools in NEISD and I wanted to work in a school where I felt I’d be appreciated. As I talk more about it, I realize that. A lot of people say, “teachers are selfless, that it’s for the kids.” Honestly, a lot of it is about me wanting to feel appreciated. I want to go to work where there might be a handful of kids that look up to me and say, “that’s somebody who I can look up to in life because, outside of this school, I might not have a lot else to look up to.” So as I researched the schools, I looked at the socioeconomic status, at the rate of reduced or free lunch and single-parent homes, those types of things. Those were all attractive to me because if I put my time into something, I want for it to be worthwhile. That’s not to say that the other high schools in this district are not worthwhile, they would be. They absolutely would be. But for my wants and needs, and my personality, my skill set fit more here at this school than it would at other high schools. This is the best fit for me. And I said in my blog that people approach me to apologize for me working here at Roosevelt, cause “there’s not something better out there.” And they’re wrong, but they’re right at the same time, if that makes sense. They’re wrong because they say I’m stuck at Roosevelt because there isn’t anywhere better. But in reality, there isn’t a better place out there than Roosevelt. The kids here, they face a unique challenge that not every other kid at the other high schools has to face. It’s just a fact of life, there is less money here than at other schools. And there are certain problems you face when you don’t have the resources that other people have. And I feel like my skill-set can help the kids here more than at other schools.

 

Sergio: Why do you think people apologize to you for working here?

 

Mr. G: I don’t think they do it to be condescending or to offend. I think they do it because they simply don’t know. There is an element of ignorance when somebody apologizes to me for working at Roosevelt. And I follow up anytime they apologize with:

 

·         Did you go there?

·         Have you worked there?

·         Do you have kids that went there or go there now?

·         Do you have close family friends that have kids who go there?

 

And inevitably, those answers are “no, no, no, and no.” So how are you going to apologize to me for something you don’t know about? And it’s not just in public education. We see people talk about and give opinions on things they don’t know about, things they are not qualified to give an opinion on. But our society kind of facilitates sharing ideas and opinions, even if it’s an ignorant one. So why do they apologize? They just don’t know, because if they did, they wouldn’t apologize. They’d say, “Wow! Congrats on that opportunity. That’s really cool that you get to work at a place where you learn the lessons you learn.” I would never in a million years think of apologizing to somebody in my position because I know the benefits of being here.  

 

Sergio: I get that. I’ve been here for a little over a year now and you’re right, there is a certain kind of energy you get from these students. I also don’t feel like I’m going to work because I get to hang out with them and learn a little bit about their lives.

 

Mr. G: And that’s not to say that being inside these walls, we don’t work. We work hard. It is a real struggle some-times. At the end of the day or the end of the week, sometimes I am beat. I know you have probably felt the same. So it’s work to be here. But to be here isn’t work, if that makes any sense?

 

Sergio: A little bit, yeah. You mentioned the students in your answers and the lack of resources here. Can you talk a little bit about that? Does the district or school lack resources? The students? The students’ parents? What is it exactly?

 

Mr. G: When I say lack of resources, I can only speak from my own experience.  I’m not saying lack of resources from the school or administrative standpoint, because I don’t know. What we have here is what we have and that’s all I know. I was talking more about their home life lack of resources. When Child A has a working mother and father who both take an interest in their child’s education, that’s a resource for them to go home, ask for help on homework, “Can you help me out, mom or dad?” Sure, they knock it out, no problem. Whereas Child B has mother and father at home, maybe one or both aren’t working and that kid has to work. They have half the support, if that. So when they go home, they don’t talk about what they did at school that day or ask for help on homework that night. They’re thinking about how they’re going to get a ride to Bush’s Chicken to go cover a five-hour shift until 11 o’clock at night and then come home and get ready for school again the next morning at 8 am. “I’m not worried about homework because my mom doesn’t make enough money to meet the basic needs.” It’s not just the lack of money because if there’s a lack of money, you have to invest your time elsewhere to earn that money. And now it’s a lack of money AND time. What if mom and dad are doing their own thing? Now it’s also a lack of support. Lack of support, time, and money outside school is a unique challenge that our kids face here at a higher rate than do kids at other schools.

 

Sergio: So we have more “Child B” students here than other high schools have “Child B” students?

 

Mr. G: Yes.

 

Sergio: And what has your experience been like working with our kids? I mean, I wouldn’t have returned for a second year if not for them.

 

Mr. G: It’s been… it’s been freaking… it’s been…

 

[Mr. G.’s voice begins to crack and he starts to tear up.]

 

Oh, man. Sorry…

 

Man. You just hit me with that question right now, excuse me.

 

It’s been phenomenal… because they reciprocate… they reciprocate the respect. They reciprocate the passion.  They reciprocate the effort, if it’s done right. And that’s what I love about these students. And some people and some teachers might say, “he’s crazy, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. They reciprocate the effort? What? It’s like pulling teeth to get these students to work.”

 

And it is sometimes. But they reciprocate those things if it’s done right. One thing these kids understand is respect. And that sounds like an oxymoron when you walk down these halls and see how they act. But one on one, if you show respect to these kids, they will go to battle for you. They will fight for you. If you don’t show them respect, they won’t pick up a pencil off the ground for you, even if it is their pencil and you tell them to. They understand, but a lot of teachers don’t understand that “respect your elders” is a thing that is dead and is not coming back. I’m sure that hurts some people to hear, but it’s true. It’s their willingness to open up and work for you if you show them respect. If you look at them as a person, they’re not just a student in my class, you are [first and last name of student who just walked by and bumped fists with Mr. G.], a dude with an incredible personality if you get to know him. But if you approach him wrong, if you come at him wrong, don’t think for one second that he’ll do one thing for you. In short, it’s the way that they passionately live.

 

Sergio: I might, I might not. (small chuckle) We’re talking about passion and you exuded it in that answer with the language you chose and the emotion you showed. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in my role is really getting to know the students and their personalities. But the dark side of that is that you also learn of the struggles they go through. In your role, do you have the opportunity to get to know them?

 

Mr. G: With a few of them, yeah. Time is the most valuable resource; we’re all pressed for time. Last year, I had a few unique opportunities to learn about some of my students in a very personal way. And that opportunity usually came up because of a problem. I find myself in a counselor’s office with the student and a parent and all barriers are broken down, it’s all transparent. It’s a deeper relationship that you take with the average student. So yes, it takes more time. You hear things you don’t want to hear and learn things you don’t want to imagine these students go through. It is a struggle. But part of being a teacher is having to learn how to compartmentalize. So yes, I’ve had that opportunity, and even with the bad stuff, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

 

Sergio: I talked earlier about a lot of decisions in education being made by those outside of education. Have you experienced that in your few years?

 

Mr. G: Not on a major scale or on a political one. I know it happens, there are outsiders that make decisions that affect what go on in my classroom. However, I can’t speak of it because I haven’t felt the effects or don’t know that I have felt the effects of a bad decision outside. I can, however, speak on a much smaller scale that sometimes there are people from the district or the administration who mean well. They go into your classroom for 10 minutes to observe and they have a list of things that go well and a list of things you can improve on. It’s hard to give a genuine and accurate piece of advice after a small window of observation. I do certain things in my classroom that might not be textbook, but they work for my classroom. For example, the kid sitting with his head down and headphones on might not necessarily be having a bad day. He may have just done three problems and done that because I told him, “Hey man, if you sit down and do these three problems for me, we’ll call it a success and I’ll let you listen to music. The rest of the period is yours.” Ideally, in theory and in textbooks, they’d tell me that this is wrong. But in practice and in the real world, if a student does not want to work for you, they won’t and they’ll be passionately stubborn. So you have to approach them the right way. Nine out of 10 times, if you approach a kid like that, they’ll do it. They might complain a little bit, but they’ll do it. Versus “Hey, we have 10 problems to do today. You have 40 minutes to do it. This is your grade and this is your assignment, no ifs, ands, or buts. And they do zero problems and didn’t learn. But an outsider comes into my classroom for 10 minutes, sees that, and points it out to me. I know what’s going on in my classroom and I know what’s good for my classroom. Which situation is better? So that’s a small-scale situation.

 

Sergio: Small-scale works just as well. What other teaching styles have you seen here at Roosevelt?

 

Mr. G: I don’t know the right terminology. Maybe that’s a product of my alternative education, but my approach to my students is “I’ll respect you. And then I expect you to respect me.” That’s one approach. And I have with that student a working, friendly but not friends, relationship where we can joke with each other. I try more to be on their level. That works for me, but it doesn’t work for everybody. I know of one teacher here who is very authoritative and whose approach is very aggressive. He is probably not on a lot of his students “favorite teacher list.” However, he has some of the highest scores, if not the highest scores, I know that. And I’m not saying that high scores are what define success. But they show that his kids are learning. And our objective is to make sure our kids are learning. So that’s his approach and I could never use it. That’s not me, the kids would see right through it. And he could never use mine. Those are two vastly different approaches, they both work and that’s because the approach we use is us. The ones that I see work are the ones in which the teachers are being themselves. I’m not saying any style is superior to any of the others; they’re just very different. But if you are being you in your style, you’ll find some element of success.

 

Sergio: Say you were given a machine. This machine would allow you to produce characteristics you want to put in teachers that work in schools like ours. What characteristics would you place in the teachers that work in our kind of school? What kind of teacher do our students need?

 

Mr. G: The first thing is understanding; to understand that there are differences and that’s okay. To understand that to help somebody, you first have to go with somebody. There is only one way to redirect an egg, a raw egg. If there is a falling egg, I can’t just put a pan out and let the egg hit the pan or else that egg will break. There is only one way to redirect an egg, you have to first go with the egg to absorb the speed of the egg and then eventually slow the egg down enough to stop it, and then you’ll be able to pick the egg up. It’s a weird analogy, but it’s an approach I wish teachers used with students. You can’t redirect a student head-on. First, I want to be understood. Sit down with me and let me vent with you. Let me feel that you understand me before you try to talk to me about what I should be doing. If you understand why I’m doing what I’m doing, you’ll be better suited to help redirect me or correct my path.

 

My perfect, real life teacher would have the ability to apologize, to say I’m sorry on an individual level to a student face-to-face and to a entire class. I’ve found myself in moments where I’ve messed up in how I act. And I find myself thinking, “This is the moment I should apologize, but the thought runs into my head, ‘but I’m the teacher, this is my classroom, I don’t need to apologize.’” But that’s wrong. No, I need the ability to apologize when I mess up. That ability is not a sign that you’re weak or doesn’t make you imperfect. It’s a sign that you’re reasonable and a sign that you’re able to admit fault. And that’s something kids really respect from an adult.

 

Those two things will give you a great start, but a passion for the students is the last thing. I have a passion for helping these kids get to the next step and I think that’s incredibly important.

 

So understanding, the ability to apologize or humility, and a passion for the kids is what my ideal teacher would have.

 

I have found that I struggle with accepting differing styles, both as a first-year AmeriCorps Member and this year as a Team Leader. I am sure it’s an issue that not only those in City Year experience, but teachers struggle with as well.  

 

In just 30 minutes with Mr. G., I learned much. While he provided an excellent perspective on what it’s like to work in our schools and with our students, he also gave pretty solid advice.

 

Though his advice tells us much about how to better reach our students and be better educators, it serves also as advice to be even better human beings, no matter what role we may find ourselves in.   

 


Sergio Plaza is serving as an AmeriCorps Member as a Team Leader for City Year San Antonio after previously serving in 2014-2015.  He is a graduate of the University of Texas - Austin.   

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