Nowadays we hear a lot about teachers—from “education reformers,” politicians, business executives, clergy, union leaders, academics—but we rarely hear from teachers themselves. Most teachers I know and come in contact with are eager to talk about teaching and the jobs they do. It is decidedly a very different conversation from the ones pundits, policymakers and critics have. Of course, some teachers will lament the present state of testing, outside interference, and the unreasonable demands of curricula shaped by test results. But most are happiest talking about what teaching has always been about: their students and the amazing things they do (or don’t do). That’s why I’ve decided to start a series of guest blogs, Teachers in Their Own Words, inviting a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom. If you’re a teacher and have a story that you’d like to share please feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve written in the past about what I call “teachers in tough places”—men and women who spend their days teaching in the inner city, psych units, prisons and detention centers; schools that are often ill equipped, understaffed, and in some cases, dangerous. For those folks, teaching is a daily challenge. Today’s contributor, Joan Edwards-Acuna knows about challenge. She teaches high school students serving time in a New York adult county jail. Others in this series have written about the difficulties (and rewards) they’ve encountered working in a similar environment. But Joan’s challenge is compounded by the fact that most of her students are English Language Learners (ELL). According to the Center for American Progress, in the decade between 1997-98 and 2008-09, the number of ELLs in public schools has increased by more than 50%. Unfortunately studies also indicate that ELLs have the highest dropout rate among ethnic groups. With the Common Core curriculum in place the stakes are even higher for these students as well as for their teachers. What is refreshing and inspiring about Joan’s piece is how she not only doesn’t lament the difficulty of her job (some of her locked up students aren’t even literate in their native language), she outright welcomes it as an opportunity to, as she writes, “step up her game.” And as you’ll see, she not only steps up, she strides to success, bringing her students along with her as they all “race to the top.”
“Stepping Up My Game”
The year 2000 marked a turning point in my career as a high school ESL/ English teacher. Not only had I been downsized to half time, but the only opportunity to maintain a full time position was a transfer to an alternative program for incarcerated youth at the local adult county jail. The twenty first century had brought an onerous dilemma—or so I thought at the time. I soon discovered it had delivered a new opportunity to hone my skills and to reevaluate my teaching style. This transition forced me to step up my game.
English Language Learners (ELLs) who become incarcerated, experience unique challenges that no other students I serve encounter. They are usually “students with interrupted formal education” (SIFE), a term established by some state education departments to define immigrant students who face certain academic limitations.
My students did not stop going to school by choice, but by design. They were forced by economic hardship to interrupt what is considered routine to support not just themselves, but an entire family. They have risked their lives at great expense, to set foot on US soil to earn money the hard way—washing dishes, waiting tables, cooking, mowing lawns, painting and building houses—not just to feed the extended family south of the border, but also to pay off a debt. As a result in almost thirteen years, I have met few who are matriculated students, en route to a high school diploma.
Teaching in incarcerated education demands a kind of resilience and flexibility that only those of us in the trenches can appreciate. The “revolving door” phenomenon derails the best lesson plans. To have any real impact in the classroom requires an awareness of the emotional backlash of incarceration on adolescents. However, working with ELL’s forces a particular discernment. Despite their predicament, these students hold the teacher in high esteem, are respectful and conscientious, usually demonstrating an eagerness to master English as a second language (ESL).
As class rosters change with daily additions and deletions, my most immediate challenge is to create a community of learners in a classroom where students feel safe to take risks. English is a confusing language after all, with many exceptions to the rules, but getting to know their unique interests and abilities is a bridge to acculturation. I never penalize students for using native language, especially for the purpose of clarification. As students with interrupted education, literacy or a lack thereof, is a huge deficit that can not be ignored.
I remember well Jose, a nineteen year old from South America who was not literate even in Spanish. He had dropped out of school at an early age out of sheer frustration. I discovered he was dyslexic, but he had never been diagnosed. He saw no point in attending classes. It wasn’t until he revealed his love of horses that we had a breakthrough. I tapped into this passion, even though I had to adapt a bilingual approach to most of the assignments he completed.
I teach in a program flush with resources – a smart board in every classroom, access to desktops, laptops, the most up to date software, even the traditional standards such as picture dictionaries, flashcards and manipulatives are abundant.
I feel fortunate to have these supports in place; however, these tools are not what I use to measure how effective I am or what forced me to raise the bar for myself. Rather it’s recognizing the discrepancy between the formal diagnostic assessment and an authentic evaluation of students’ literacy skills. It’s meeting the challenge of creating a language-rich environment, and planning lessons that adapt to different learning styles and reading levels. Differentiated teaching/learning becomes second nature in incarcerated education if you want to survive. It’s about maintaining consistency in an environment in which change is the only constant. Ultimately, it’s being able to encourage students to want to tell their stories because in my opinion, they need to be told. They are amazing stories of courage, determination and perseverance that all students, regardless of their background, can appreciate.
Measuring gain at this level of literacy is very tangible, sometimes even remarkable because it’s not just about improved reading and math scores. It’s also about a new found confidence or self-worth demonstrated in a more relaxed affect, or the desire to borrow a book from my mobile library—the “unquantifiables” that peep through the gloom of the status of court cases, depression and/or a lack of familial support.
As exhausting and demanding as the experience continues to be, the rewards of teaching literacy to incarcerated adolescents have made me a better teacher. The possibility to impact change in my students far outweighs the challenges of meeting state mandates and token administrative support.
Recently I ran into a former student who had struggled to master English in class. He proudly introduced his family without hesitation and shared that he had remained gainfully employed. By some standards, this may not represent success, but for him, I knew this feat symbolized a hard fought battle. I encourage teachers to continue to see the glass half full. Your advocacy and passion won’t go unnoticed by the people who matter most – your students.