“The thing that made me change was the people that I know or see in Watts. The people in my hood is either gangbangers or crackheads and I don’t want to be neither.…I don’t want to be killed over some shoe or the way I look or the people that I hang out with.”
During my first year of teaching in 1999, I found this writing torn up and thrown in the trash. It was my student D’s response to the prompt, “What was a turning point in your life?” She decided not to turn it in, but instead to throw it away. Back then I didn’t recognize her response for what it was – a recognition of her own power, an opportunity to improve her neighborhood or a cry for help. And back then I probably didn’t recognize my own ability to support her development as a 6th grade change-maker. Nonetheless, I taped it back together and have kept it for the last 17 years as a reminder of why I teach in high-need schools.
I’ve always taught in high-need schools, and while I know that all students deserve great teachers, I feel strongly that my students need me most, and I need them. My students are my people. Many of us share a history of struggle as people of color in the United States. Me — an African American and Irish American woman. Them — Mexican and Central American, West African, Caribbean, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, African American, you name it.
I am a proud product of public schools and believe strongly that all students, regardless of their circumstances deserve access to an excellent education. By teaching in high-need schools, not only am I an agent of change, I also get to support my students in becoming agents of change – something very few of my teachers did for me. I left teaching for three years and realized almost immediately that the classroom is where I am of most service – and where I am happiest. Teaching brings me joy but teaching in high-need schools also grounds me in knowing that I am doing something transformative, not only for myself and my students, but for our country and our world.
I can’t deny that teaching in high-need schools can be tough. The social, emotional, and educational trauma that many of our students face greatly impacts their schooling and our teaching experiences. But the notion of what’s possible can outweigh what is. With time, collaboration, support, and relationships, my colleagues, my students, their families and I can thrive and collectively change our communities for the better.
I know that I can’t do this work alone. And 17 years ago, my student D knew that she couldn’t do it alone either. While I wasn’t sure how to best support D as a first-year teacher, the beauty of it all is that every single day I get to right that wrong. I get to shift students’ life trajectories by being a model of change and supporting them in becoming their own agents of change. Quite honestly, there’s no better place to be.
Geneviève DeBose, NBCT, teaches seventh grade Language Arts in the South Bronx in New York City. She was a 2011 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.