Laney Keeshin

Five Truths for Urban Teachers

Classes of 30 to 40 students and the toll of poverty are challenges, yet I love the students.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - May 6th, 2015 12:57 pm
Laney Keeshin

Laney Keeshin

My first article ever about my experience in education is about truth.

I recently read an article by Sean McComb, the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, in which he noted, “In education there rarely is a singular truth. Teaching is complicated and contextual.”

I agree with McComb’s statement. Teaching is indeed complicated and contextual, and in my experience as a teacher, there is never one truth. At the same time, though, I think there are many truths that we share as teachers in urban Milwaukee.

Truth #1: Class Size and Resources

I teach 148 students a day. Some friends of mine teach about 180. Our class sizes range from 30–40 students. So, you want to buy a treat for class spontaneously? So, you want to do an art project with your kids? Well, unless you’re taking a generous amount of money out of your own paycheck, you can’t afford this.

Why? Two reasons. First, you don’t even have the basics yet. Each month, you will probably need to stock up on more pens, pencils, paper, and paperclips just to be a functional, organized teacher. These basic items add up, even if you go cheap (i.e. when Office Max has a closing sale…). Second, you have 150 students! The cost of materials for 150 students to do an art project will cost at least $50. For example, I wanted to do an art project to celebrate Mexican culture, and I needed yarn, card stock paper, and glue. This cost me about $60 at Walmart. We ran out of glue, so I went out again and spent $10 more.

Will I get paid back by my school? Most likely, no. My school gave me $0 at the start of the year, and this was not because they didn’t want to give me money. We have an extremely tight district and school budget, and giving teachers money for resources at struggling schools just doesn’t happen anymore.

I have spent a lot of my own money on my students this year, and I’m not going to complain about that. They deserve it. What angers me is that I often have to stop myself from planning a certain activity because I cannot always go and buy the supplies. It bothers me tremendously that our students won’t get the opportunity to do fun and engaging activities because of this. If students are not engaged or excited about what they are doing, they are usually going to check out or lose motivation.

I am angry because where I went to high school in the suburbs of Chicago, teachers were not scrambling for resources, spending early mornings at Walmart, or worrying about how to be the most resourceful with the least amount of supplies. Teachers were not fundraising so that they could simply do their job well.

Truth #2: Poverty

At my school, about 70 percent of students qualify as low-income. This is actually much better than most schools in our district, where 100 percent of students are living in poverty. My students are predominantly African-American. About 20 percent are white, Latino, or Asian.

Poverty affects the learning environment everyday. My students sometimes come without materials. They may have not slept well or eaten enough for dinner the night before. In the winter, some walked to school in below-zero temperatures with a light jacket. I always have a few students leave class each day to talk to the school counselor or students who come to class, put their head down and mutter “Having a bad day, Ms. Keeshin. Just leave me alone.”

It is incredibly difficult to teach my students and bring them where they need to be if they are not mentally or physically prepared for school. It is exhausting to constantly give and grade makeup work to students who were absent from class. The truth is that poverty significantly affects my students’ ability to succeed in school.

Truth #3: Adults

I am thankful for many of the adults I work with, especially in my immediate hallway. The two teachers across the hall have combined teaching experience of about 30 years, and that is a HUGE advantage for the newbie (me) down the hall.

I am not a great teacher, and I may not even be a good teacher. But, I am trying really hard to do a good job. I really care about my kids and their futures, and they know that. In general, we cannot afford to have teachers who do not take seriously the success of their students.

The negativity in my building and in my district is heavy and taxing on its teachers. There is a constant flow of it, like a powerful waterfall. This tone is draining for a new teacher who came to this work to make education a little better.

I have learned already that firing teachers is not the answer. Instead, we need to make teaching a valued profession that is competitive, pays well and brings in the best of the best. These are our kids, and our future, that we are working with!

Truth #4: Testing and Administrative Tasks

These things take away from instructional time and take energy away from teachers. Beyond grading classwork, papers and tests for my students, I have to complete a comprehensive online professional program to show that my students are learning something. Students are also tested four times a year, and when testing happens, core subject teachers have to pause what they are doing to test their students. During each testing period there are a few days where a whole class is absent. I lose my students for testing for the equivalent of about 3 weeks a year. That is an entire unit I could have taught!

Truth #5: Teaching is also AMAZING

The good news here is that I work with 150 amazing young people. Some of my students are only four years younger than me, and that is weird but also cool. I teach freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and they amaze me everyday. I see them working hard to learn a new language and speak it with one another. There are days when we have a lot of fun together. They used to make me cry a lot, and now they make me laugh a lot (and sometimes cry). We do learning, we do conversation, and we do bonding. It is refreshing to work with kids who are honest and real about themselves and the world.

The bottom line is that I work with a whole bunch of unique and beautiful people, and I am so happy they entered my life. But do you see how HARD it is to get to that point? It is difficult to enjoy this job if you put everything you have into it.

I love the students I work with. And I mean it, like I really love them! I can’t exactly pinpoint how or why I started to feel this way. I think, though, it’s because when you are able to strip away the bull#@$% that tends to cloud this type of work, you realize that teaching in urban schools means working with young people who want to build a better future for themselves.

The best lesson I have learned is if you can do your best to ignore the bad stuff, which is often so, so hard, really cool stuff can happen in your classroom, and there is a lot of hope in that.

Sean McComb writes: “It’s one thing to be aware of the statistics, it’s another to be in proximity to the suffering they represent, it’s yet another to stand in the gaps they create, with a spirit oriented toward hope.”

I often feel like I am standing right next to the suffering, and this is where being hopeful is most critical.

Laney Keeshin is a Teach for America corps member who teaches Spanish at a high school in Milwaukee.

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

Categories: Education

4 thoughts on “Five Truths for Urban Teachers”

  1. Robin says:

    Great article.

  2. Joe says:

    As a Teach for America teacher, you are new, so you may not know this, but you can write off what you spend on your taxes. I know it is not the best solution, but it helps. A second point….for a job to be competitive, being able to be fired is a necessary component. I was in MPS and enjoyed job security of the kind that essentially no other profession enjoys. When I left MPS for a different district, my contract is renewed annually. The job security I had has greatly reduced. Guess what? My teaching has dramatically improved. I will be justly criticized for that statement….there were times when I was not always at my best, but I was allowed to be. Humans respond to incentive and punishment. It’s an inescapable fact. Laney, you mentioned the negative people you encounter and the toll that has taken on you and others. I know for a fact that you work much harder than many of those people, but, as a new teacher, you make much less simply because you’re new and they’ve been around longer. I know you’ve thought about that. Don’t get jaded about it, but recognize the system that created it and protects it isn’t always working in the best interest of the students or in yours. I can imagine that administrators would love to cut so much dead weight from the system and hire many more energetic and hard working teachers like you, but their hands are tied. Structural change is needed.

  3. Eric says:

    I’m proud of you, Laney. It’s a tough job as you well know, particularly in a low income, low resource school. Fortunately, the work you’re doing does make a difference, both for the students you teach, and for yourself. Perhaps you’ll stick with teaching when your Teach for America time is up. Perhaps not. Regardless, both students and teacher will have benefitted, and I know your experience will stick with you more deeply than any job to follow. Thank you for your service.

  4. Virginia Small says:

    Thanks for sharing your compassionate analysis of urban education. We need teachers, and the profession, to be valued for the good of our society. I hope teaching rewards you enough to keep doing it.

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