First Person

What it took for me to start listening to my “difficult” students

On my first day of teaching English as a second language at a small public middle school in the South Bronx, I got lost trying to navigate the halls teeming with students of all ages.  At the time, five other schools occupied the building, and by the time I arrived at the room where I would teach my first class of sixth graders, the students were lined up and ready to start.

I shuffled through the keys to the six other classrooms I was assigned to teach in, juggling the plans and worksheets for my three other preps, and managing my own anxiety. Nyima, a student who stood separate from the others, side-eyed me. I felt as if she was asking, “Are you really my teacher?”

With only six weeks of training through the city’s Teaching Fellows program, I was asking myself the very same question.

It wasn’t until several months into the school year — after my relationship with Nyima had soured and she been suspended multiple times — that I began to recognize the role that inexperienced teachers like me could play in pushing students out of classrooms rather than finding ways to keep them in.

Clinging to control 

That first day in the hallway, I finally found the right key, let myself in, and introduced myself in both Spanish and English, assuming that I would reach every student that way. My speech patterned by deep breaths, I recognized Nyima in the back, anxious, staring with confusion as I rambled on.

She clearly did not understand Spanish, and, I later realized, was the only non-Spanish speaker in the room.

When I asked each of my students to share their names, Nyima was the only one who refused. The 21 strange new faces stared at her. We were both frozen. It was our first standoff.

Trying to implement the only classroom management skills I knew, I pushed Nyima to share.

I wanted her to recognize me as her teacher and to follow my directions.  I wanted the other students to quiet their whispers and understand my expectations. I had been told during training that my students should not be able to “opt out” because that would be “coddling” them.

She refused to participate that day. And she refused to participate for the first three weeks after that. Nyima thought that I was being unfair, and she did not want to take part in my class because of it.

Nyima’s vow of silence ended when she began defending herself against assumptions her peers made based on her hijab and her name.

I made efforts to draw her out by reiterating my expectations for participation, complimenting her on half-completed assignments, and placing brightly colored post-it notes on her desk. I attempted to find translation materials in her home language (Soninke). Most of these attempts at building a relationship resulted in Nyima sucking her teeth loudly or slamming the classroom door.

My responsibility to 67 other students across five grade levels with their own complex needs and skillsets made reaching out to Nyima in those moments particularly difficult.

Alongside the language barrier, I was not trained in how to read her Individual Education Plan, the document that outlines her learning disability and how to accommodate her needs. As a result, I was unable to offer her proper accommodations for her learning disability, such as offering extended time on assignments and reading aloud directions.

I was ineffective, stressed, and frantic. Constantly. Nyima participated less and less and became more and more tense when entering my room. Some days she would spend the majority of the period locked in the girls room. At times, that felt like a relief.

Lacking other models

During my first year teaching, I was also taking a class toward a master’s degree in the evening. Most of my classmates were also going through an alternative certification program, and most of them, like me, were middle-class, native English speakers unfamiliar with the neighborhoods where they were offered their first jobs.

We all seemed to have at least one “Nyima” — a student we characterized by lack of engagement, refusal to participate, and egregious disrespect. We spoke about how we “tried everything,” and how we had to “write them up” or “kick them out” to maintain any kind of respect in our chaotic classrooms.

To us, it looked like students like Nyima were causing the chaos in our classrooms. Our lack of training in positive behavior interventions — alternatives to asking students to leave the room, writing them referrals, and sending them to a disciplinarian office — made it very difficult for us to imagine taking a different approach to students like Nyima.

By December, Nyima’s folder was filled with dozens of half-completed worksheets and ripped loose-leaf papers.

Not surprisingly, many of Nyima’s teachers were — like me — first-year teachers who were enrolled in alternative certification programs. We filled Nyima’s personal record with a laundry list of write-ups: “derogatory” remarks to other students, constant physical altercations, “lying,” and inability to comport herself in a classroom.  Her record did not include any traces of successful strategies or interventions.

After accumulating referrals and threatening another student in the bathroom, Nyima received a superintendent’s suspension. During her time at the suspension site, she missed three weeks of the preparation for her state exam and the exit exam for ESL.

Restoring a relationship

At about the time Nyima was suspended, I started attending meetings with a group called Teachers Unite, an organization that works to dismantle punitive discipline policies in schools. Talking to teachers about their efforts to build supportive communities in their schools made me look at my classroom and my master’s classes with a new lens.

I began to see the connection between our so-called “impossible” students and our lack of experience teaching and exposure to varied pedagogical and classroom management strategies.

Working with the experienced educators in Teachers Unite, I learned new discipline models that gave me and my students the chance to communicate our needs and the ways we felt they had not been met.

I held conferences instead of writing up detentions and (when I was able to) facilitated mediations instead of calling the deans. If I listened closely during these moments, I began to hear what my students were saying: how I hadn’t been mindful, how I hadn’t recognized certain requests, and what I could do to restore our relationship moving forward.

During one of our conferences, Nyima told me that I “never heard what the other girls said” during class, that I always unfairly asked her to leave the room, and that I “never helped.” She admitted to feeling this way in some of her other classes and with her peers as well.

This is how I was able to begin transforming my practice. And while it’s an ongoing process, this year has felt like a different job.

For one thing, my relationship with Nyima is no longer defined by discipline. She frequently rushes to my classroom after school with her best friend Deana to hang out while she does make-up work. She helps me set up the desks and asks when she can take on more classroom jobs. Sometimes we get to talk about music, her desire to be a doctor, and the responsibility she has at home of caring for her four baby brothers and sisters.

I don’t think that alternatively certified teachers are necessarily fated to push students like Nyima out of the classroom. But I do think we need to be aware of the limitations of our alternative certification programs, and we need to seek additional training to help us understand the ways our own limitations can lead students to feel like they don’t belong at school.

In my case, moving outside of the Fellows program took the form of finding a new community of teachers and a new way of thinking about what it takes to meet each student’s needs. For others it may look different. However we get there, students need new teachers to take the time to find fairer, more comprehensive, and effective models to engage them.

First Person

As historians and New York City educators, here’s what we hope teachers hear in the city’s new anti-bias training

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio just committed $23 million over the next four years to support anti-bias education for the city’s teachers. After a year in which a white teacher stepped on a student during a lesson on slavery and white parents used blackface images in their PTA publicity, it’s a necessary first step.

But what exactly will the $23 million pay for? The devil is in the details.

As current and former New York City teachers, and as historians and educators working in the city today, we call for the education department to base its anti-bias program in an understanding of the history of racism in the nation and in this city. We also hope that the program recognizes and builds upon the work of the city’s anti-racist teachers.

Chancellor Carranza has promised that the program will emphasize training on “implicit bias” and “culturally responsive pedagogy.” These are valuable, but insufficient. Workshops on implicit bias may help educators evaluate and change split-second, yet consequential, decisions they make every day. They may help teachers interrogate, for example, what decisions lead to disproportionately high rates of suspension for black children as early as pre-K, or lower rates of referrals to gifted programs for black students by white teachers.

But U.S. racism is not only split-second and individual. It is centuries deep, collective, and institutional. Done poorly, implicit bias training might shift disproportionate blame for unequal educational resources and outcomes onto the shoulders of classroom teachers.

Anti-bias education should lead teachers not only to address racism as an individual matter, but to perceive and struggle against its institutional and structural forms. Structural racism shapes the lives of students, families, and communities, and the classrooms in which teachers work: whether teachers find sufficient resources in their classrooms, how segregated their schools are, how often their students are stopped by police, and how much wealth the families they serve hold. Without attending to the history that has created these inequities, anti-bias education might continue the long American tradition of pretending that racism rooted in capitalism and institutional power can be solved by adjusting individual attitudes and behaviors.

We have experienced teacher professional development that takes this approach. Before moving to New York, Adam taught in Portland, Oregon and participated in several anti-bias trainings that presented racism as a problem to be solved through individual reflection and behaviors within the classroom. While many anti-racist teachers initially approached these meetings excited to discuss the larger forces that shape teaching students of color in the whitest city in America, they grew increasingly frustrated as they were encouraged to focus only on “what they could control.”

Similarly, at his very first professional development meeting as a first-year teacher of sixth grade in Harlem, Brian remembers being told by his principal that neither the conditions of students’ home lives nor conditions of the school in which he worked were within teachers’ power to change, and were therefore off-limits for discussion. The only thing he could control, the principal said, was his attitude towards his students.

But his students were extremely eager to talk about those conditions. For example, the process of gentrification in Harlem emerged repeatedly in classroom conversations. Even if teachers can’t immediately stop a process like gentrification, surely it is essential for both teachers and their students to learn to think about conditions they see around them as products of history — and therefore as something that can change.

While conversations about individual attitudes and classroom practices are important, they are insufficient to tackle racism. Particularly in one of the most segregated school districts in America, taking a historical perspective matters.

How do public school teachers understand the growth of racial and financial inequality in New York City? Consciously or otherwise, do they lean on tired but still powerful ideas that poverty reflects a failure of individual will, or a cultural deficit? Encountering the history of state-sponsored racism and inequality makes those ideas untenable.

Every New York City teacher should understand what a redlining map is. These maps helped the federal government subsidize mid-twentieth century white suburbanization while barring African American families from the suburbs and the wealth they helped generate. These maps helped shape the city, the metropolitan region, and its schools – including the wealth or poverty of students that teachers see in their classrooms. This is but one example of how history can help educators ground their understanding of their schools and students in fact rather than (often racist) mythology.

And how well do New York City educators know and teach the histories of the communities they serve? Those histories are rich sources of narratives about how New Yorkers have imagined their freedom and struggled for it, often by advocating for education. Every New York City teacher should know that the largest protest of the Civil Rights Movement took place not in Washington D.C., not in the deep South, but right here. On February 3, 1964, nearly half a million students stayed out of school and marched through the city’s streets, demanding desegregation and fully funded public schools. Every New York City teacher should know about Evelina Antonetty, a Puerto Rico-born, East Harlem-raised advocate who organized her fellow Bronx parents to press for some of the city’s first attempts at bilingual education and just treatment for language minority students in school.

Even if they don’t teach history or social studies, educators can see in the 1964 boycott and in Antonetty’s story prompts to approach parents as allies, to see communities as funds of knowledge and energy to connect to and build from. The chancellor’s initiative can be an opportunity to help teachers uncover and reflect on these histories.

Ansley first taught at a small high school in central Harlem, in a building that earlier housed Junior High School 136. J.H.S. 136 was one of three Harlem schools where in 1958 black parents protested segregation and inequality by withdrawing their children from school – risking imprisonment for violating truancy laws. The protest helped build momentum for later educational activism – and demonstrated black Harlem mothers’ deep commitment to securing powerful education for their children.

Although she taught in the same school – perhaps even the same classroom – where boycotting students had studied, Ansley didn’t know about this history until a few years after she left the school. Since learning about it, she has often reflected on the missed opportunities. How could the story of this “Harlem Nine” boycott have helped her students learn about their community’s history and interrogate the inequalities that still shaped their school? What could this story of parent activism have meant for how Ansley thought about and worked with her students’ parents?

Today, teaching future teachers, Ansley strives to convey the value of local and community history in her classes. One new teacher, now working in the Bronx, commented that her own learning about local history “taught me that we should not only think of schools as places of learning. They also are important places of community.”

The history of racism and of freedom struggles needs to be part of any New York City students’ learning as well as that of their teachers. Some of the $23 million should support the work of local anti-racist educators, such as those who spearheaded the Black Lives Matter Week of Action last February, in developing materials that help teach about this history. These efforts align with the chancellor’s pledge for culturally responsive education. And they offer ways to recognize and build on the knowledge of New York City’s community organizations and anti-racist education networks.

Attitudes matter, and educators – like everyone – can learn from the psychology of bias and stereotype. But historical ignorance or misrepresentation has fed racism, and history can be a tool in its undoing.

That would be a good $23 million investment for New York and all of its children.

Ansley Erickson is an associate professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and a former New York City high school teacher.

Brian Jones is the associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library and a former New York City elementary school teacher.

Adam Sanchez is a teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City and an organizer and curriculum writer with the Zinn Education Project.

First Person

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, 8 essays from educators who raised their voices this year

PHOTO: Incase/Creative Commons

Teachers are often on the front lines of national conversations, kickstarting discussions that their students or communities need to have.

They also add their own voices to debates that would be less meaningful without them.

This year, as we mark Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re sharing some of the educator perspectives that we’ve published in our First Person section over the last year. Many thanks to the teachers who raised their voices in these essays. Want to help us elevate the voices of even more educators? Make a donation in support of our nonprofit journalism and you’ll have the option to honor an important educator in your life.

If you’d like to contribute your own personal essay to Chalkbeat, please email us at [email protected]

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

After racial violence erupted in Virginia last year, New York City teacher Vivett Dukes called on teachers to engage students in honest conversations about racism.

“We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away.”

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

Too often teachers are blamed for bad curriculum, writes Tom Rademacher, Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. And that needs to stop.

“It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human, and teaching is both creative and artistic, would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power.”

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

Two of Ilona Nanay’s best students started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. But their educational careers came to an end after graduation because both were undocumented and couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition.

“By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams.”

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. In this essay she shares what it’s like knowing that you could be the only thing between a mass shooter and a group of students.

“The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills.”

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives.

Alex McNaughton teaches a human geography course in Houston. After Hurricane Harvey, he decided to move up a lesson about how urbanization can exacerbate flooding.

“Teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.”

How one Harlem teacher gave his student — the ‘Chris Rock of third grade’ — a chance to shine

Ruben Brosbe, a New York City teacher, has a soft spot for troublemakers. In this story, he shares how he got one of his favorite pranksters, Chris, to go through a day without interrupting class.

“Dealing with him taught me a valuable lesson, a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: At the end of the day, everything that we want to accomplish as teachers is built on our relationships. It’s built on me saying to you, ‘I see you,’ ‘I care about you,’ ‘I care about what you care about and I’m going to make that a part of our class.’”

Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

Being a black educator can be isolating, writes William Anderson, a Denver teacher. He argues that a more supportive environment for black educators could help cities like Denver improve the lives of black students.

“Without colleagues of the same gender and cultural and ethnic background, having supportive and fulfilling professional relationships is much harder.”

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

For years, Memphis teacher Carl Schneider walked his students home to a nearby apartment complex. Then a photograph of him performing this daily ritual caught the attention of the national media. In this essay, Schneider reminds readers that he shouldn’t be the focus — the challenges his students face should. His call to action:

“Educate yourself about the ways systemic racism creates vastly different Americas.”


Thanks to our partners at Yoobi for supporting our Teacher Appreciation campaign.