Once a week, I have a class period set aside during the school day to provide my students with extra help. I teach English Language Arts so you would think that students would come to me with questions about their homework assignment on GoogleClassroom or to review questions that they got wrong on a test for partial credit points. Instead, every week my classroom is filled with students — usually students that most teachers would rather not spend time with outside of their regularly scheduled class — who just want a space to hang out, laugh, talk freely, and be heard without judgment.
Sometimes they are drawing or listening to music, but mostly we are all — myself included — just sharing our lives and our experiences with each other. Today two of my students from last year asked if they could chill in my room because they don’t like the vibe in the cafeteria. “Of course,” I said. I remember those days in junior high school (what middle school was called before it was called middle school, lol) when the cafeteria was a hotbed for drama and bullying. One of my administrators had walked them over and seemed pleasantly shocked that I was so amenable to their visit, as well as their confidence that I would welcome them. We ate party mix chips as they told me what they did over the summer, who likes who, what high school they plan to apply to, who broke up with who, and what they like and dislike about their classes. I get an earful and I have to say, honestly, I love it!
Why do the “bad” kids like me? Because they feel that I genuinely like them. They see that I am able to separate them from their often disruptive behavior. They know that, no matter how much they act out, when they are ready to talk and be accountable I am there to listen and support them.
I’m glad that my students – past or present — know that my classroom is a safe space where they are cared for and where they belong. I’m glad that I feel safe around them, as well. Most of my students know that my husband John is incarcerated and they make a point of asking me how he’s doing, how we are doing, if I’m okay, or if I need anything — like peace and quiet. Some days I do need that and I’m glad that this level of mutual respect exists between us.
I was a “bad” kid. I was a smart, pretty girl who cut classes more than I attended them. I was a ball of feelings with no positive outlet for them. Emotionally, I was lost. Sadly, I see the same attributes in many of my students — too many. My experiences heavily influenced my decision to not only become a teacher but to teach teenagers. I understand them because I still very much remember what it felt like during that tumultuous time in my life. There’s so much to be said for the underdogs. I’ve always rooted for them. As a Black woman and teacher of color to students of color, I am an underdog — in more ways than one. Teaching is my form of giving back to my community in a very personal, heartfelt way.