Saturday, November 12, 2005

why don't teachers live in the areas where they teach?

inspired by organized noise, a blogger of brilliant proportions, i was forced to think about something that has created alot of arguing between my teacher friends and i. from time to time i hear them complaining about how long their commutes are, ranging from thirty minutes to an hour, to their jobs. they also complain to me about how little they know and understand their students, telling me how the parents never come to meetings with them and basically play an absentee role in the academic lives of their children.

while i can definitely relate to the frustration, having mentored children from these same areas, i can't help but wonder if part of the problem lies with the teachers themselves. how effective can a teacher be in a child's life when that child only sees the teacher for eight hours a day? i know as a mentor i only have limited influence with my kids because i only have a couple of hours during the week and eight hours every other weekend to spend with them. in the 18-20 hours i spend with them weekly, 5-10 of those hours are spent trying to reverse the negative effects they experienced as a result of their chaotic home lives. many times i will have to give the same speech over and over again, trying to convince them of their own power to succeed in spite of the difficulties facing them. in fact, i try to turn it around and tell them they can succeed because of the difficulties facing them, tying their obstacles to the tenacity they've already proven they had because they were finding a way to survive in a difficult situation.

i don't live in their neighborhood, so for the first couple of months it was hard for me to get through to them. they are surrounded by adults who come and go in their lives after short stays, and they have no reason to believe i will be any different. there was one girl in particular who was having a rough go of it. tiara was like a brown teardrop, forever falling from the disillusionment pooling in her mother's eyes. she was round like a bell, and her voice rang loudly, usually with a note of self-disgust she had no idea of how to define. when she first started coming to the clubhouse, she was a constantly disruptive force, her anger an explosion of self-loathing that left shrapnel embedded in everyone around her. her words were so sophisticated in their calculated delivery, i was sure she had heard those same words hurled at her on a daily basis from her mother. i would always counter her attacks on herself with words of encouragement, trying to get her to see her own worth. the problem is that her time with me could not completely negate what she had to deal with when she got home.

and therein lies the crux of the problem. home was and is no haven for her, and it's not a haven for many of the children who come to school to hear adults tell them they know what's best for them. strangers they have sporadic contact with throughout an eight-hour period before the kids are put on buses and sent to homes in neighborhoods where the majority of the adults are either working eighy hour a week jobs or plying their trade on the corners, leaving them with little positive contact with adults. the fact of the matter is that these neighborhoods are the places people move away from, not to. folks who could provide a varied set of role models for these kids move out of the neighborhood as soon as humanly possible, leaving blue collar workers on the low end of the pay scale and folks gaining their material goods through illegal means.

now this isn't to say that blue collar workers aren't good role models. in fact, i think the empowerment of those communities begins with acknowledging the strength already there, manifested within those folks as they find a way to get up everyday and go to work a job(s) that barely keeps the bills paid. however, it must be a difficult task for the citizens of those communities to find worth within the inhabitants there when everyone is always so intent on moving away, as if to say those communities are nothing but cesspools of ignorance, laziness, and poverty.

the message sent to those left behind in these communities is that there isn't anything there worth staying for, worth fighting for. that message is read loud and clear by the children there, and having folks coming from outside of the community to teach them creates not only a sense of resentment among them, but also feeds into the low self-esteem they have because those folks, due to their lack of knowledge about the community and its challenges, are quick to label these kids in a negative manner.

i can't tell people how to live their lives. all i can do is provide an example through my own actions. while i still do not live in the community where i mentor, i have done alot of volunteering in the area in an attempt to immerse myself within the community and embrace the challenges facing it as my own. whether this is a solution to teachers breaking down the walls erected between them and the children they teach, i'm not sure. however, i know for me that gaining an intimate knowledge of these communities can only help in not only empowering the inhabitants, but also in breaking down the invisible walls currently erected that has isolated them and their problems from those who are already empowered enough to assist them.

ultimately, we all have to ask ourselves what our priorities are. if one of the priorities is to empower black folks to find success and happiness for themselves, then separating ourselves from those folks most distant from that goal cannot possibly aid in the goal of empowerment, yet many of us do it everyday without conscious thought. when we leave our neighborhoods to shop at the "good malls", send our kids off to the "good schools", move ourselves and our families into the "good neighborhoods", the "bad" malls, schools, and neighborhoods don't just disappear. they become worse as a result of our absence. they become neglected as a result of our inattention and those folks who are not yet if ever empowered enough to leave those areas for "better" will continue to suffer and give birth to new generations of folks who will continue to suffer.

so this isn't just about teachers not living in the areas where they teach. it's about police officers not living in the areas where they arrest the majority of their suspects, business owners not living in the area where they sell their products, and others who benefit financially from the same communities they deem not good enough to live in.

and as long as the pattern continues in this manner, i guarantee those communities will never improve, and as much as black folks would love to say we've "arrived", there is still almost half of our population living on less than $25,000 a year, so in the end, one really doesn't have to look far to see a black community struggling.