I Am Not Brave

It’s a conversation that happens occasionally, and it irks me. I’ll be out somewhere, usually engaged in a commercial transaction (i.e., shopping) and usually somewhere north of my house. I’ll casually mention my profession, and someone will ask where I teach.

I’ll tell them.

And I’ll tell you: I work in what might succinctly be described in a high minority, low socioeconomic status district. In an area of town with a reputation for being unsafe. In short, I work in what people in the “nicer” parts of town think of as that school.

So when I tell them, the reaction is always a sharp intake of break and an “Ooohhhhh!” that ends in a hiss. A slight recoil from the neck up.

Then they recover enough to cover themselves, slip into a smile, and say, “You must be brave.”

Stop it right there.

You want to call me brave for teaching? Sure, okay. It’s a job that sometimes involves standing in front of people and requires being put on the spot daily.

You want to call me brave for teaching high school? I guess. I grasp the concept that teenagers can be rebellious and trying, though personally, it’s the elementary teaching that would scare me.

You want to call me brave for teaching in Arizona? Absolutely. While there are some pro-education legislators in the capitol, the longstanding lawmaking momentum has come from people who believe that thinking is an act of Satan; therefore teachers are his emissaries.

But do not call me brave because I teach where I teach.

It devalues my kids, makes them out to be somehow worse than all the other teenagers in all the other high schools. They are not, and it is bigoted to imply otherwise.

This may come as a shocker, but I do not spend most of my time breaking up gang fights or intercepting drug deals. There are not massive amounts of students with juvenile records; no one is scheming to get pregnant in order to run a WIC racket. By far, the worst things I have to deal with on a regular basis are inservices and staff meetings, both of which are plagues that hit educational institutions across the spectrum.

Strange as this may sound, even in that school, I spend most of my teaching time… actually teaching. We learn new information and basic skills. We refine those skills and facilitate critical thinking. We work on planning, organization, evaluation, and reflection. We predict and discuss how these skills will be useful to them in the real world. Kids make mistakes, and I monitor, offer feedback, and adjust.

Of course, I spend some time managing classroom behavior. But with a plan of being proactive instead of reactive, treating students with respect, and communicating expectations clearly, it actually takes up relatively few minutes of any given day. And certainly, a lot of my kids have tough lives, and there’s a complicated relationship involving that toughness, socioeconomic status, race — a relationship that plays out differently for each student. Moreover, while it’s naive to suggest that my students “check their problems at the door,” when they are in my classroom, their focus is on their learning.

There may be a lot of people and political forces I face as a teacher that might merit calling me brave. But my kids? My kids are pretty great.

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5 comments on “I Am Not Brave
  1. Anna says:

    How do you respond to these comments? I would probably ask, “What do you mean by that?” just to put them on the spot and force them into saying what they really mean … But I am very bad with this kind of on-the-spot stuff.

    • Tori says:

      And I’m generally very non-confrontational, especially in person, so I worry that sometimes I don’t say enough. It depends on the person and the situation (e.g., a long line behind me versus making small talk at the bus stop).

      Sometimes I don’t say anything.

      Sometimes I say, “What?” like I might not have heard them properly. This is the one I’ve used most often, and I’ve observed a lot of people respond to that with something like, “Never mind,” or, “It wasn’t important anyway.” Which, I think they recognize that they’re being given a chance to backpedal, and they take it — which in turn says lots about whether they knew it was a bigoted statement to begin with.

      And sometimes I try, “I’m not sure what you mean by that,” which again leads to a lot of dismissal and backpedaling — but is also a way of allowing that backpedaling to happen so I can avoid a confrontation.

  2. Thank you for this post! I teach at a community college and get similar statements. I don’t know what people envision happens in my classroom, but I assure you that it’s not anything all that different from what happened when I taught at an affluent private school. I even have several students who are recently out of prison and trying to get their education to start a new life. They are almost always incredibly polite and hard working.

    I especially like what you say about being proactive and giving respect. In my experience (teaching everything from six year olds to sixty year olds), people will act in the way that meets your expectations. If you expect them to be respectful and attentive, they usually are. If you expect them to be rude and inappropriate, they pick up on that, too.

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