“You teach where?” I can’t tell you how many times I have hear this question the past year. I should be used to it now, after teaching 11 years at a public school on a reservation, I was used to that question. Stereotypes is a very hard thing to overcome, and although it may sound cliche- overcoming them reveals some pretty amazing things.
I teach for the kids. People ask me if I became a teacher because I’m passionate about mathematics, and I always say no. I enjoy my subject material, but the thing that hooks me into education is my students. I am here to help kids learn, get them prepared to become adults- and there is no greater need for that type of personality than a juvenile center school.
So let’s look at some opinions of my students that other people have….
~ They are there for extreme crimes
This seems to be the biggest misconception many people have. There are different levels of students at the center, and there is a section where they experience the same conditions they would at any correctional facility for adults. There are very few of my students who are here for extreme crimes. Many are here because they have run away from home or have an addiction. This is not a huge change from working in the middle school. I had students who were struggling with substance abuse (alcohol and smoking seems to continue to creep down the age ladder). There are also numerous times that I would find out that a student was staying at a friend’s house because of problems at their own home. The only difference is how those experiences unfolded.
~ They are disrespectful and unwilling to be in a school setting
One of the benefits of teaching at a juvenile center is that students are required to attend school. That may seem like it would cause a problem in student participation or engagement in the classroom, when in fact it is the opposite. I won’t say there isn’t discipline issues now and again, but it has not been a drastic change compared to my teaching experience in a public school. In fact, many students become engaged and enjoy class because they are not worrying about outside factors: food, a place to sleep, no drugs/alcohol, and a feeling of safety. Have I had students swear at me? Yes. That is not a surprise. Have I had any student try to intimidate me or physically engage me? No. In fact, I have found quite the opposite…
~They don’t care about anything and you can’t reach them
This misconception is one that also surprises me. The reality is quite the opposite. All of my students NEED you to care about them (or at least show them that they deserve your attention). This hit me a couple months after I started working here. I am a teacher of self-reliance and group collaboration. I don’t feel like I’m doing my job if students feel they need me to work on problems. This feeling was on overdrive because I had students asking for help continuously! Typically I prefer to wander the room listening in and observing student work so I get a clear assessment of their mathematical background and ability. This year I have been the center of that “observation”, using my questioning to directly assess their knowledge. I found that I need to allot 5 minutes or so of 1-1 contact with each of my students in order for them to feel safe and comfortable in class. They have no real contact with family while they are here so I fill that void for them. This is especially true for my more “behaviorally challenged” students, the root cause of any outburst is they need attention- so I make sure to visit those individuals early in the class period to alleviate any disruptions.
~They are a bunch of dumb delinquents
Quite the opposite actually, they are incredibly bright. They are open to new ideas, activities, and any classroom participation- which was not true with my regular education students. They have been really great to work with- they enjoy the mix of activities I bring to the classroom and are not afraid to remind me when I get stuck in a rut. I can’t count the number of times they ask if we are going to do Andrew’s or Fawn’s problems, not Estimation 180 or Visual Patterns. They connect to the people instead of the activity. One of the biggest problems I have had with the Mathematics Standards is when to introduce certain topics. Is Algebra truly appropriate for 8th grade? Are they ready to think abstractly, or have they not hit that developmental stage yet? I now think it all depends on the presentation and differentiation. This year I have taught classes that include 4th through 12th graders, and have been very proud of my younger students. They are able to define, describe and express linear relationships.
~Its an easy job (or it’s a hard job)
It is the SAME job as a regular classroom educator. There are parts that are easier (classroom discipline is clearly outlined and easily followed/implemented) and some that are harder (differentiating instruction for such a wide variety of students and levels). Many people are asking me if it was a good move- and it was, it definitely was. They are also asking me if I am looking to work elsewhere- and I’m not. There may be that job that blindsides you someday, but right now I know that these kids need me here- that the work I do with them is making a difference in their lives in a way that is beyond what I would in a regular classroom.
It’s all about the kids. In education- it has to be.