“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference”
I feel like this should be renamed “An Urban Teacher’s Mantra” (I’m going to avoid the word prayer). It embodies so much of what my colleagues and I remind ourselves at the beginning of each year (and day for that matter).
In urban schools (and schools in general), there is so much that is out of our control. From district and school-wide mandates to students’ personal lives, some things just are and try as we might, there’s little we can do.
In light of this, I was talking with some of my colleagues about the biggest challenges at our school and what we can do to address them. Above almost anything else, we agreed, attendance is our biggest struggle. However, we felt there was not a whole lot we, as teachers of students who are primarily over 18, can do to deal directly with our attendance issues.
[True: there are a number of approaches that have found some success in some schools, from incentives to home visits to modified schedules, and we’ve tried several, but alas we still average around 70 - 80% daily attendance]
I then turned my attention to the issue of students who come to school, but leave around or after lunch, cutting their last few classes.
To this one of my colleagues responded, “Yeah, security and the case managers need to do a better job guarding the door.”“But what do you think we as teachers at a small school can do to curb this trend?”, I asked.He replied, “Well, I’m not going to force them to be here. If they really don’t want to stay, they are welcome to leave. That’s their choice”.To an extent, I agree with him. Our school is voluntary and we consistently run a 100+ waiting list, but I’m not satisfied that there’s noting we can do keep them in the building.
I suggested that we re-commit ourselves to engaging, relevant, and active lessons in our classrooms, especially in the afternoon. On one level or another, our students made a choice to re-enroll in school and whether they’re willing to admit it or not, they want to learn something. Just like I hate irrelevant PDs or pointless meetings, they don’t want to be bored or feel like they’re wasting their time. While I know there are still students who will cut my afternoon classes, I refuse to let it be because they don’t feel like they’ll be challenged, entertained, engaged, or accomplish something in that hour.
This is what I mean by controlling the things you can. I can’t always change the girl who can’t come to school because she doesn’t have childcare, nor can I change the guy who has to work to afford dinner or who misses a week because he’s locked up and no one can bail him out. Though these situations affect me deeply, they are not as easily in my control.
Ensuring that when students come to my class they will be met with challenging material that is relevant to their lives and will make them stronger citizens of the world, however, is absolutely in my control. It's important for me to note that this isn't some kind of "hero teacher" mentality. Instead, it's just a reminder of the effect that an engaging classroom can have on students' attitudes. It's not about "we believe every student can learn", every student does learn. As a teacher, it's up to you to decide what lessons they're going to learn in your classroom.