Teacher Hangs Tough with Students Facing Tough Circumstances | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Teacher Hangs Tough with Students Facing Tough Circumstances

Teaching positions may be getting cut. And class sizes may be getting larger. But Jessica Sullivan is “eager and ready” to teach, no matter how hard things are for her or, for her kids.

I was a student teacher last fall, at a high school in western Cook County where nearly half the kids come from low-income backgrounds. But it was where I wanted to be, because this high school was a reflection of my experience back home in Gary, Indiana.

I was lucky, and didn't have a story like a lot of these students--I had a loving family, I loved academic work--but I did have the same sadness they have about their community.

After a week of observing the classes I would be teaching, my supervising teacher said I could grade some of the narrative writing assignments. Each student was supposed to write about an event that changed his or her life story, whether it was for better, worse, or somewhere in between. I sat in a fluorescent-lit classroom and began to read.

One student wrote, “I could tell by the way he started to kick the dogs around that we were next. … I tried to reach for my puppies, but he told me to step back.”

In another essay, a girl said that on December 19, 2007, she found out she was eight weeks' pregnant. She wrote, “My mom's tears felt like knives being shoved into my heart,” and that her mom would find a place where an abortion wouldn't be too expensive.

As my students' words poured off the pages and into my thoughts, I wondered what I had just walked into. At first I thought they were making it up. But I remembered the kinds of things I'd overhear. Like when a girl mentioned to her friends that her boyfriend had hit her again. She said he was just kidding around, but the mark was still on her arm.

What was I going to teach these students that would relate to their lives and their stories? They wondered too, and asked why, out of all the rich white schools, I had picked this school nobody cares about. I told them I wanted to be there for them, the way my teachers were there for me. I wanted them to know that even though I may not have dealt with their particular struggles, I understood them because I have friends who had.

They accused me of wanting to teach them to be white. I told them I wanted to teach them to be them, and to beat the odds I feel are constantly against them.

For the next 10 weeks I restructured, retaught and regraded, giving the kids chance after chance. I pulled them aside, called their parents, sat with them in tutoring, anything to get them through their classes. I saw students attempt to complete their homework and improve their grades. A lot of the seniors put up a challenge by not coming to class but asking me to pass them anyway. My supervising teacher says you teach to the few who are ready to learn. I don't think I will ever know how those students truly felt about me. I know some were sad to see me leave. Some told me to go as far away as I could go. I feel like I broke even.

My student teaching experience is over now and I'm looking for a job. I'm applying to that school, as well as other high-needs schools. I could teach at better places, with stellar students who do what they're told. But a lot of students need help. In Chicago. In Maywood. In Addison. I'd rather help students who need my help than help the school that needs my face. As a student teacher, I wound up learning that not every student wants to be helped or saved, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try.

Music Button: Medeski Martin & Wood, "Baby Let Me Follow You Down", from the CD Radiolarians II, (Indirecto)

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