Yesterday I led teachers and administrators in a professional development workshop on engaging and empowering learners. I began our workshop with a tale from my first year teaching history at the rough and tumble Stonewall Jackson Middle School in the heart of “Duce Ward” in inner city Houston.
I remember being surprised by the giant Roman numeral IIs graffitied across the Jackson schoolscape. At first I guessed there must be a very active Latin club or perhaps a super-engaging world history teacher behind these hand-painted Roman numerals. I was very, very wrong.
Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities had inspired me to work with Hispanic kids in the inner city, and I was exactly where I wanted to be, but still, Jackson Middle was eye-opening. I remember the joke a wisecracking cop told me on my first day of school.
“Hey, rookie,” the burly cop called out.
“Yeah, you, rookie.” Before I could walk over to shake hands and introduce myself, the cop laughed: “Hey Rookie, how many cops does it take to throw a student down the stairs at Jackson?” I winced.
“I don’t know…” I stammered.
“None!” The cop roared, slapping his thigh, spitting out his punch line, “He just slipped!”
The smartest person in the whole school was a kid named Jimmy. He didn’t have good grades or high PSAT scores or anything like that, but in his gangsta Dickies and long white t-shirt he burned with intelligence. With Jimmy, all the cognitive channels were open wide, and you could feel his brain whirring as he devoured all my class had to offer. Jimmy-the-kid was rumored to be a Southwest Cholo gang member, and at age 14 he already had Gothic gang tattoos on his knuckles. I’d been trying to connect with Jimmy all year but nothing seemed to work; not the little talks we’d have after class, not the sports analogies I’d land in class, not the Spanish slang I’d throw his way (time to write your essay, Ese). I wasn’t getting through, but I wasn’t about to give up on this brilliant kid and see his big brain put to work selling drugs or leading a gang.
One crisp Friday afternoon in October, Jimmy raced up to me at the end of class. He looked nervous, his eyes darted around the room. He was pale and sweat ran down his face.
“What’s wrong, Jimmy?” I asked.
“Meester,” he said. (All the students called all the male teachers Meester. It could make for confusion whenever a student needed one of us in the teachers’ lounge.) “There’s something I really want to talk with you about. Can you walk me to the bus Meester?”
I was elated. I’d finally broken through. I was just 25, hardly older than some of my students, and Jimmy wanted to talk to me. I was becoming a man. What, I wondered, did Jimmy want to talk about? Was he going to ask for more details on the Emancipation Proclamation? Did he want to borrow my favorite biography? This was my Stand and Deliver moment! I was ecstatic. At long last I was about to connect with Jimmy.
As we walked to the bus I was grinning ear to ear, but Jimmy was distracted, his gaze darting around every corner.
“Jimmy,” I said, “Why do you keep getting in fights, man? I mean, I don’t fight when I have problems.”
“And you don’t live in my neighborhood, Meester.”
Which was true – thank god! A softie like me wouldn’t have lasted a second at Jackson.
“But Jimmy, you’re so smart. You could really go somewhere! You could really make something of yourself with that big brain. I mean why don’t you even try, or turn your work in for once? You could be a star in my class!”
“No disrespect, Meester,” said Jimmy, “but it’s not like I’m planning to be a historian or nothin’.”
And that’s when I realized, smack in the middle of my first year teaching, that I wasn’t really trying to make my class into a little army of historians. In fact, I wasn’t really teaching history. What I was actually doing was teaching my students skills: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity - the Four Cs. And what I’ve learned in my 22 years teaching since then is that the best teachers always use their subject-- math, English, science, or whatever it is-- to teach their kids successful habits of being. We teachers were all taking different routes, but we were headed towards the same place.
As I spoke to Jimmy, I realized that these skills I was trying desperately to teach in my class were probably much more valuable in the Deuce Ward than they ever were back at my Alma Mater. At Wake Forest, if you couldn’t think critically or communicate creatively, then you’d have to suffer Daddy having bought you a Volvo instead of a Lexus. Here in the ‘hood, thinking fast could be a matter of life and death.
We arrived at the bus.
“So, Jimmy,” I said as he mounted the stairs to the bus. “What was it you were so desperate to talk about that you asked me to walk you out to the bus?”
“Oh nothin’, Meester,” he said casually.
“Nothin’? So why’d you ask me to walk with you? What was so important?”
“Oh yeah. That. Sorry Meester.” He paused and scanned the horizon. “So this other gang, Meester, they have a hit out on me. So I figures if a teacher walks to the bus with me, I’m less likely to get shot. You know what I mean? Capped!”
So that’s was the first time I saved a life! And you know, saving a life is something that you feel really good about, but you don’t particularly want to do again.
And that’s when I learned the second important lesson in my first year of teaching. When a gang member asks you to walk him to the bus, you tell him to download the Uber app.
I guess this is just a long way of saying content is not the ends, content is only the means to practice the skills and habits of critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. And the good news is that the hit never happened; Jimmy ended up graduating from Jackson Middle; and we all practiced the 4Cs happily ever after.