Anacosita ES - The End

Yes, an abrupt end it is. Four weeks I spent at Anacostia Elementary School. The experiences of that time are enough to give me a taste of what it’s like to teach in a downtrodden urban neighborhood. And enough to realize I would not be able to teach there the whole year and make it out on the other end with my health and sanity in tact.

I wrote about the violence and the disrespect amongst students and both were very prominent. Fights continued to erupt in the classroom and the hallway, usually as a result of taunting between the students. One was so bad that desks, chairs and furniture went flying around my classroom. I herded students into the hallway while one member of our class whacked furniture in the classroom with a metal frame of free-standing white board. That student got taken away for the day, only to be babysat by a special education coordinator, who had no idea what the child had done. No one called his house. There was no follow up beyond me calling mother and trying to prepare the students for reintegrating him into the classroom the next day, requesting that they not call him “psychopath.”

We did have a nine day streak fight-free. According to observers familiar with the school, this was a record. Unfortunately, skirmishes continued in the following weeks, and I continued to feel unprepared for handling them and their fallout. Our school had no particular protocols in place for such situations. When I asked the principal, I was informed that I should not call upon the security guard to break up a fight, nor was I given any other alternate solutions. Trying to deescalate a fight between two impulsive, hyperactive ten year olds is nearly impossible. No time outs, talk with principal, detention or in-house suspension as a form of consequence was available. All these issues were to be handled by classroom teacher. The classroom teacher who is expected to teach rigorous academic material, for which the students are not, as one might imagine, prepared.

I am happy to say that in the four weeks I did notice a difference in each of my students. Even those most destructive, most unreasonable, the ones held back, the ones ostracized by the whole, responded to me by initiating unexpected conversations, showing concern about their behavior contracts, obeying my requests to “please sit down” even if it was after the seventh time, by raising hands and trying to participate and simply by making eye contact or saying hello. There were glimmers of hope with each one, and I felt proud to see their investment in their education. It was uplifting.

Unfortunately, these glimmers were not enough to uplift the colossally malfunctioning system into something manageable and forward moving. In the end it was not the children, as crazy as the stories about them are, that made me want to leave the job. The part that seemed far less likely to change was the administration, the top-down issuances of mandates, scripted curricula, required bulletin board displays, micromanaged time segments, and the constant threat that someone would come in to check teacher’s degree of compliance with all of the above and “write them up” was really too much to bear.

Ironically, teachers were treated in exactly the same way bad teachers teach their students: without listening, caring, explaining, providing rationale or getting their “buy in.” The administration was the sage on the stage, the very paradigm which effective teachers try to steer away from.

It is too bad really. After ”experts” spent years analyzing what makes a good teacher, and evaluating an effective teacher’s impact on the classroom, such teachers are making their ways into many underperforming classrooms that may have been neglected. This effort may still not yield the results its proponents are hoping for because it takes more than just a good teacher to reform a classroom, let alone a school. Good teachers may be the bricks of a successful school, but the administration and support services, the soundness of norms and expectations, the consistency of procedures, the caring and investment of and a collegial atmosphere among its adults are the mortar. Both are needed for the building to stand.

Teachers can not be, exceptional human beings who make extraordinary sacrifices at great personal cost for the good of society. Or at least this one can’t.

Anacostia Elementary School (all names have been changed)

Week one of teaching in Anacostia. That is the southeast part of the city. The “bad” part of town. There is really no other way to say that.

I knew that, going in. I knew about the abysmal reading and math scores, only 15% of the children at grade level. I only vaguely sensed the ugly reputation such schools had and dared not imagine the reality on the ground. Even if I had dared, I don’t think I would have been able to imagine a real Anacostia school.

Our school has an almost entirely new teaching staff. Only three teachers from last year remain. All the students are black and so is most of the staff.

I wonder what it feels like for the kids to come back to a school full of new teachers. Right now it seems like a struggle between us and them. We are wrangling for authority over the turf. Who is winning?

Hard to say. By 2 pm, in my class, the kids have definitely won. They’ve outlasted, outscreamed, outcussed, outfought, and in some cases outrun me. Nothing would have prepared me for their tenacity for off task, off focus, and appallingly rude behavior.

Common forms of communicating, at least among the fifth graders, are slurs such as “you African bootie scratcher,” “crackhead”, “faggot”. “I’m gonna steal you!” is their favorite promise. “Penis” and “vagina” are some of the most commonly named body parts. “Shut up!” is their favorite command.

It’s a rough crowd. Day two was my first encounter with a fist fight. I have never seen a fist fight in real life before. Not amongst teenagers - if there ever was a fight in high school, I certainly had no interest in being a witness. And really, after that where would one see a fist fight? A bar? A party? I never had the privilege. Not until my second day at Anacostia Elementary. On the way back from lunch, two boys started to fight, for no apparent reason, right in front of me. I tried to hold each one by his arm, and separate them - since they are little twigs that come up to my waist. But they are squirly little guys, and kept pursuing each other. It didn’t help that about half of the class was shouting “fight! fight! fight!” with their hands cupped at their mouth. Once one of the boys broke loose, I had to let the other one go so he could defend himself, and I sent one kid to go get a security officer. In the meantime, a pile of punching and kicking scraggly arms and legs was wriggling on the floor. When the massive security officer heaved herself upstairs, each one of us was able to restrain one kid. I can’t quite describe how inwardly shocked I was at that incident. That night I had some doubts about this job. I didn’t sign up to be a correctional officer! I cried, and felt sick, and wondered what the hell I got myself into.

I wish I could report that day three was better, but it really wasn’t. I had to restrain one of the boys again, from picking a fight with a different boy. At least I was reassured, that it wasn’t just me, since one actually pursued the other after school even in front of the pursued boy’s father. Father started to chase the enemy boy and fell down. Next day, pursued boy was transferred to another school.

Day four was a little better, largely because there were two of us in the room. A special education teacher comes one and a half days per week to assist with the five special education students in my class. That day we taught them compliments. The kids came up with a list of compliments they could give each other (and it couldn’t be “I like your hair” or “I like your shoes.”) Then we went around the room and each complimented someone, while the recipient said “thank you.” That was the most positive atmosphere we had in class yet.

Day five I had several kids join me for lunch in my room. They brought up their trays with their school lunches; we sat around a table and got to know each other. I found out that Marco has been going to Anacostia Elementary for 8 years, because he’s been held back twice. A very sweet kid. I found out three of them consider Redskins to be “their” team, while one considered herself a Steeler and another a Raven. We all found out that the reason why Marco’s right arm is shorter and limper than the left is because “they took a nervous from his shoulder” and put it in the lower part of his arm. When one of the girls sought clarification about the “nervous” part, wondering if perhaps it wasn’t a “nerve” that was replaced, Marco pointedly retorted “hey, is this your arm?” It was a very lovely lunch.

You see, many of them are sweet. And I think they like me. But the few that aren’t “sweet” have an amazing capacity for causing mayhem. It’s hard to imagine what they have been used to in a school. We have a looooong way to go. It would be great if students wouldn’t raise their hand and request to step outside to remove a wedgie (I didn’t even know how to spell that word!). It would be great if they didn’t chase each other inside the classroom at full speed, or walk out of the room without permission. It would be great if they would acquire the discipline of working on something, being successful and feeling good about themselves. It would be great if they would be kind to each other. It would be great if they would understand the purpose of school, of learning. And I think we can get there. But man, it’s going to be a loooong road.