My previous twenty years in education were marked by lots of parental involvement and support. There seemed to be unwritten laws about respect, authority, and student work. Parent contributions for seasonal parties usually exceeded "need", and family events were well attended. Students arrived at school the first day of school with a backpack and grocery bag full of school supplies from the published list. Makeup work was usually for students who had extended illnesses or to be completed while the family went on a trip, which they notified the school about ahead of time. Everyone seemingly had what they needed.
Although I served in five different schools in the urban school district, there were some consistencies among them. If half of the enrolled students in my class came with all their school supplies during the first week of school, that was great. What wasn't great was that teachers were expected to purchase what was needed for the other students from their own resources. Despite the many organizations and agencies that provided uniforms, a couple of students started late because they didn't have any. One or two of the girls started a day or two late because all the girls in the family were getting new braids. It took me a few years to understand a new ideology for ranking priorities.
Because the distinctions between cultures was so blaring, it seemed impossible not to compare. Worse, comparisons always favored the white bread land that I had come from. For at least five years, I really believed God was punishing me. Acclamation was slow at best and painful at times. Just to show how much He loved me, God wouldn't let me give up. At the time, I felt like I was trapped in "urban hell". No amount of job applications, great interviews, etc. yielded a change in districts. I was stuck.
Then something happened. Oh, nothing specific that I can put my finger on. Not sure if I gave up or gave in, but at last I knew I was exactly where the Lord wanted me to be. That's when the change began. The circumstances didn't change, I did. I began to look at my students and families as children of God, just like me and mine. We had innumerable differences, but in the one big thing, we were alike: God loved us all. And then the learning began, a lot for me, and I think, more for my students.
One thing I learned is that just because families don't look the same in composition, membership or SES (socioeconomic status), those things don't necessarily determine family dynamics or priorities. Mostly, but not entirely in any setting, adults love kids and take their roles of protection and provision very seriously. Typically, kids reflect the adults's perspectives. The greater diversity of families, the greater diversity of perspectives. And almost without exception, no matter how dire the circumstances, kids trust and will defend the adults consistently in their lives.
And here's the sad thing I learned. Far too often, the concentric circles of influence in children's lives can have a negative impact as well as a positive one. I learned this the hard way my first year at the alternative school. That winter someone in the school was affected by a violent death, on average every three weeks, sometimes more often. As devastating as that was, the fact that only one or two of those deaths were newsworthy spoke volumes. And hearing comments basically saying it was just another black kid, was more than heart-breaking. I saw his family members or friends every day and knew he wasn't "just another black kid", he was someone who was loved and cared about.
A conversation with my aunt several years earlier began to ring in my brain. Both of Aunt Anna's sons were extremely successful in their particular fields. Mary was eight years old, and James was five during that visit, so I asked Aunt Anna what she and my uncle had done to promote their sons's successes. She told me very simply that from an early age, they told the boys their expectations: go to college, work hard, do your best and do what you love.
Urban educators understand that before you can instill expectations, you must build relationships, which go far beyond assignments and assessments. So I watched more closely and listened a lot more to what my students were saying, and not saying. I vigorously searched for connections my students and I might have. Then, and only then, I began to tell my students, explicitly, what I expected (which always included college, hard work and doing their best).
In all likelihood, I will never know how my students have chosen to lead their lives. That's probably true of a lot of teachers. Sad as that may be, it doesn't really matter. As long as I have frequently, consistently, provided positive expectations to my students, I will have done my job.
What expectations do you have for yourself and those you love? What expectations have been imposed upon you?
11 I say this because I know the plans that I have for you.” This message is from the Lord. “I have good plans for you. I don’t plan to hurt you. I plan to give you hope and a good future.