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The Mechanics
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Chicago Public Schools Tue Sep 30 2014

Lessons Learned in Englewood: 8 Years of Reflections from a CPS Teacher

By Dave Stieber

A little over eight years ago, when I took my first job in CPS at a high school in Englewood, people of all races would look at me like I was crazy when I told them where I would be working. During my time teaching in Englewood I had people make assumptions about me, such as that I must not be a very good teacher if I teach in Englewood, because surely, if I were a good teacher I would be working somewhere else.

Obviously if people were making assumptions about me working in Englewood, they were also making assumptions about my students who lived in the community. I have written previously about when a random stranger on the bus called my kids animals and how I responded.

Through all of assumptions and stereotypes, I realized that the students I taught were all that mattered. But I also very recently came to a point in my professional career that I needed a change of schools. I am still a CPS public high school teacher on the South Side, just at a different school now. Leaving the students was and is still hard. I didn't officially make the decision until August so I told my students through email and text messages. That was the hardest thing by far about leaving. But the beauty of the students was they wanted me to be happy. Yes, they were upset and hurt, but every single student (I even messaged kids who graduated awhile ago to let them know) really just wanted me to be happy. So I write this dedicated to every single student I taught in Englewood, which is close to a thousand students.

So here is some of what I learned from my time in Englewood:

Teachers know that kids can detect a good teacher in the first few minutes of meeting us. Well my Englewood students could detect a good teacher in seconds. When we hired teachers at our school we would always have students sit on the interview and ask questions. Once the interview ended, if our students had doubts then that person wasn't hired.

The kids knew the stereotypes about them, but more importantly with guidance knew also how to beat those stereotypes.

That most of the kids I taught could make better politicians than many of the people who are in power in this city.

That Englewood produces genius. Yup, you read that right. Still doubting? Then watch this.

I learned that having open and honest conversations about race wasn't always easy, but was always very necessary. Lisa Delpit, an acclaimed scholar on race, once came to our school and observed me teach and talked to students that I taught. Because of my openness to talk about race and the stories my students shared with her, she was inspired enough to write about me in her second book.

That four Englewood high school students can stand up and poetically dissect every terrible policy Rahm Emanuel has put in place.

That when I experienced the worst loss of my life it was the students that I taught who knew how best to support me.

That when the first student that attended our school was murdered, students and staff came together.

It was in my fourth year of teaching that I got a phone call at 6am on a cold January Saturday morning from our assistant principal, who told me Travell had been killed. Travell was a very likable kid and a kid who had turned his life around from early in his high school career to just get accepted into college. His loss rocked our school. Everyone dreaded going to school that Monday after his death. But it was everyone at the school, students and staff that kept us all together so we could grieve and overcome this tragedy.

That when one of our staff members passed away, the students and staff came together.

One of the most happy and upbeat people at our school passed away last year. He was loved by students and staff alike. No matter what, he was always smiling and was one of those people that truly made school a better place. It was at his funeral that students stood up and spoke and shared stories of love for Stokes that helped us all overcome this loss.

That there are some amazing organizations, people, and teachers working in the Englewood neighborhood. If you never heard of RAGE then you need to.

That a public high school in Englewood had better than a 90 percent college acceptance rate, but the mayor never came to congratulate us.

I learned that being white and bald would automatically lead me to be nicknamed Caillou.

That every student deserves so much more than this city's government and poorly run school system is giving them.

That everywhere parents and students want to succeed.

While I was growing up and going to school, I have some teachers who still stick in my mind. The teachers who really helped guide, coach, teach, and inspire me. Well, the thing that most people who aren't teachers don't know is that teachers have kids who stick in their minds the same way. While there are way too many students to name individually who stick and will continue to stick with me, I know that I have become a better person, because of the "dangerous" Englewood students that I taught.

~*~

David Stieber is a father, husband, CPS teacher of History. Dave is passionately committed to promoting and improving urban public education, while simultaneously improving the lives of his students. He earned his masters in Urban Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. You can follow Dave on Twitter at D_Stieber.

 
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