Mind the Gap

Posted by Brendan Lowe

thoughts-of-a-south-bronx-teacherThe inspiration and exasperation of an inner-city schoolteacher.


This is a new column by a teacher in the South Bronx. It will appear every Friday.

After class the other day, I sidled up to a student of mine. He had struggled earlier in the year, but had lately shown signs of getting back on track. Today, however, he hadn’t turned in his homework.

“Shawn, what happened with your homework today?” I asked him.

“I didn’t take my book bag home with me yesterday,” he replied. I raised an eyebrow—why wouldn’t he take his book bag home with him?

“I gave it to Xavier.”

“And why’d you give your book bag to Xavier?”

“Because I had to go fight.”

“Oh.” At this point, I reached a fork in the conversational road. Part of me wanted to thank him for sharing this information with me and to inquire as to why he was fighting, who he was fighting with and whether or not he was okay. But in this unscripted moment, my teacher self took over, and my thoughts reverted to the message I received over and over again during my teacher training—maintain high expectations.

“I’m sorry to hear you were fighting, Shawn, but you’re still responsible for getting your homework done, regardless of the circumstances.”

Shawn looked at me like I had four heads, then nodded his head in agreement.

“I know, Mister.”

Had I just proved to my student that I take his education seriously and expect him to do the same? Had I just been a total jerk and missed an opportunity to build an authentic relationship with my student? Or, had I done both?

Welcome to the confounding world I live in as a teacher in an inner-city school. My days are filled with alternating moments of exasperation, like the one outlined above, and inspiration, when my students prove to me that anything really is possible.

I’m starting this blog to share my experiences as a teacher, hoping to contribute to a more accurate understanding of what it's actually like to be in a classroom every day.

My kids are just like kids anywhere—beautiful people, full of energy and ambition, deserving of a high-quality education. At home, at school and in their community, many have received a raw deal. They learned too little when they were young. They had too few effective teachers as they got older. They encountered too few positive influences along the way.

I come from a vastly different world than the one in which I teach. I’m from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a comfortable Philadelphia suburb where the median household income is $87,248. I teach in the South Bronx, an impoverished area with a median household income of $19,389.

My tony hometown borders Camden, a city known for being named among the most dangerous places in America. The school systems are vastly different, too. It has always struck me as absurd that neighboring towns could offer their residents such different educations (and, as that follows, such different life prospects). (Author Jonathan Kozol found the disparity absurd, too— he included the Cherry Hill-Camden dichotomy in his classic treatise, Savage Inequalities.)

In college, I discovered Teach for America. While I recruited fellow students for Teach for America during my senior year of college, I never thought I'd actually participate in the program. I didn’t think I would be particularly effective, unable to build relationships with students whose backgrounds were so different from my own. (I had, after all, seen Dangerous Minds.)

I changed my mind after volunteering at a daylong workshop, where in a few hours' time, I developed a remarkably close bond with a group of teenage students. Over the course of an afternoon, we built more trust and mutual respect than I had imagined was possible.

And so I applied to Teach for America and a year-and-a-half later, am eager to share my experiences. I don’t remember them all —last year was marked by intense sleep deprivation—but I look forward to sharing those I do. I sincerely hope you will engage with me, even suggesting topics you would be interested in reading about.

Keep in mind, my experiences are my own and are not necessarily representative of other teachers in my school. And they are certainly in no way representative of Teach for America or the New York City Department of Education.

These posts are simply a reflection of my efforts to mind the gap, to pay attention on a macro-level to the educational disparity that pervades this country and on a micro-level, to the different abilities of my individual students.

(Please note: The names of students have been changed.)

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school. He will be regularly writing for GOOD about his classroom and his kids.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user majoracartergroup.