Monday, February 20, 2012

Lesson I

The most amazing thing that I learned at the close of that first week was that I did not want to leave.  In fact I realized that this was where I belonged.  I knew it was going to be the hardest job I ever had but I also knew I wanted the challenge.

For me the challenge was going to be convincing these children of their potential.  Making sure they knew that they were capable of anything.  They were all smart, talented kids but they had the misfortune of being born into a place that constantly told them they had very few options.  It was going to be my job to convince them otherwise.

While my kids and the other children in The Land of Make Believe had a mindset of "When I go to college..."  the kids 10 miles up the road had a mindset of "If I eat dinner tonight..."  That's what I was working against and whether or not I had the teaching chops and patience to get over that hump was the $100,000.00 dollar question.

Week One

I began teaching in Newark back in late October of 2011.  When I interviewed for the job the district Fine Arts Director as well as school Principal told me that teaching at the school was going to be "hard".  I kind of chuckled to myself because before I started teaching here I was under the very false impression that I could handle anything.  In fact I prided myself at the level of control I was able to maintain in my classes.

Before teaching in Newark I taught at two schools.  One was an elementary school exclusively for children with autism.  The other was a High School for children with severe emotional and behavioral problems.  I figured these two experiences had given me enough of an idea on what it was like to not just teach but work with two "difficult" populations of children.  Teaching children with special needs is challenging and I prided myself on the fact that - without any special ed. training - I had been able to rise to the occasion.  In fact I had also created my own early childhood music curriculum.  Because of the work I had done with the special needs community, I had been recognized not just by local and state organizations but also on the national level.  What type of challenge could teaching in an inner city school present that I had not seen?

Little did I know.

My first day, in my first class I knew right away what I was in for.  I realized right off the bat that the kids I would be teaching had no idea what structure was.  I was playing the piano and they were up banging on the piano, running around the room.  No one was paying attention.  It was pure chaos.  When the class finally ended I sat down and asked myself "Am I in over my head?"  I knew the answer to that question was going to come directly from what happened over the course of that first week.  Let me just say that within that first week I questioned not only my ability as a teacher but also as a parent, educated human being and leader.  I was a mess.

Imagine teaching a class and in the middle of doing so four children get up and walk out of the room?  Imagine having a seventh grade girl say to you after your first class with her "You're not gonna last."  These were just two of the things I experienced that week and if it weren't for my fellow arts teachers, I think I would have walked on day two.

"Miss M." and "Miss N" are my colleagues at my school.  Miss M. teaches dance and Miss N. teaches visual arts.  They are two of the smartest, intelligent, strongest women I have ever met in my life.  They gave me two of the best pieces of advice the first day I walked through the door.  Miss M. said to me "Do not take anything these kids say to you personally."  Miss N. echoed the same advice but added "Be strong.  Remember, you're going to have to extend your view on what 'family' means."

By the end of the first week I wasn't sure on if I'd made the right decision.  I was frustrated, confused, and also upset.  The kids at my school are smart, energetic kids - juts like kids everywhere else.  But, like I said earlier, they lacked structure, discipline and focus.  They also lacked basic needs like a good breakfast, clean clothes and hugs.  I noticed right away that a lot of the kids couldn't look me in the eye.  Many never smiled.  Some attached themselves to me right away while others not only acted distant but would not come near me.  This was all new and somewhat overwhelming.  Would it change?  Would I get better?

What the hell was I doing here?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

10 Miles Ain't That Far

I am a music teacher and I work in the Newark Public School system in New Jersey.  My commute to work is a dream.  My school is only ten miles from my house but in the twenty-five to thirty minutes it takes me to get there in the morning (there's traffic) things change drastically.

I live in a beautiful community.  It is a one that is made up of wide, tree lined streets and these are occupied by Victorian style houses.  These homes are occupied by my friends and neighbors who - generally speaking - have careers in the financial, pharmaceutical, or legal industries.  My children go to school and play sports with kids who get new iPhones for Christmas.  In our entire circle of friends my wife and I are one of three families where both parents work.  Our community has a beautiful downtown with shops, stores and restaurants.  Our children will someday be able to go see a movie, have a soda or some ice cream and never have to get in a car to do it.  This is one of the reasons my wife and I chose to live here.

A friend of mine whose wife is not from here told me that she refers to our town as "The Land of Make Believe".  I know why she calls it this.  At times our town can seem surreal.  The tree lined streets, old Victorian charm, church steeples, downtown, good schools and beautiful parks can feel too good to be true.  It really does look and feel like a place that was "made up".  In fact, many TV shows, commercials and even Hollywood movies have been shot in our town.

The community where I teach is the complete opposite.  It is a mess.  While my community feels surreal from a sugar and sweet perspective the community I work in seems surreal from a gritty crime drama perspective.  The school I work in is an island to the kids who go there.  It is a place that provides structure, consistency, love, discipline, praise and encouragement.  It is more than a "school".  For many of the kids it is home and we, as teachers, are not simply educators but surrogate parents and guardians.

This has been a life changing experience for me.  I have been affected in ways I never imagined.  I started this Blog more as a way of therapy than expression.  I need to "talk" about what I see every day and my poor wife has been the brunt of most of my frustration, sadness, and also happiness.  You see, I LOVE my job.  It's challenging and crazy in many ways but it's also incredibly rewarding.

This will be where I come to get it all out.  Talk about the thrills, emotion, stress and challenges involved with working 10 Miles From the Land of Make Believe.