• Tiye Naeemah Cort

Wake Me Up When Community Involvement is a Requirement

One thing that I truly appreciate about my first professional teaching experience was the teaching fellow model that was intended to introduce teachers to working in urban education. Yes, it was a small, private, all-girls school, but it was in the hood. We teaching fellows lived on the 4th floor of the school, and that was an experience that I wish I had inquired about more often throughout the fellowship, but I never would have guessed that I would be working with an urban teacher program a few years later. 

During y fellowship, I was one of a few black teaching fellows. It was always interesting when things that were "normal" became big deals at the school. Maybe there would be a late dismissal due to gunshots on Blue Hill Ave. There was a corner store across the street from the school that students were discouraged from visiting because of the danger of crossing a two-way main street that most used at highway speeds. Let's not even talk about the raised eyebrows in reaction to the mere mention of "Castlegate Street", a small brick apartment-lined street on the other side of Blue Hill Ave.

My students connected with me because they quickly discovered that I was once in their shoes. I, too, once sat in the very same classrooms that they were learning in, taught by mostly young white 20-somethings from the suburbs. I, too, commuted to and from school through neighborhoods that many considered to be dangerous, even though they were perfectly safe if you knew how to navigate them. I, too, learned to play soccer and lacrosse during 7th grade, and I was impressed by the beauty of lush manicured fields belonging to the rich white private schools we competed against. I, too, was a student who aspired to go to those schools for "better" opportunities, but I also had a community surrounding me that allowed me to grow and flourish right where I was.

All of my students were of African, Caribbean, or Latin descent, and being a teacher to brown girls as a brown girl, was something that I wanted to take advantage of. For me, it was cool. My parents lived a couple of streets over, so I knew the neighborhood well. I regularly walked down the street to the local Jamaican restaurant for a curry goat lunch and I served on the board of a local neighborhood arts organization. I connected with parents because of my black and Caribbean cultural background, and we would often run into each other and converse as I walked my dogs through the neighborhood or patrolled art and other community events. I was involved and known in the community, maybe because it was my community, but I was forced to be more involved and present in Dorchester and Roxbury because I lived where I worked. 


It's a dangerous world, teaching- in many ways, more dangerous than living in the hood- and the worst kind of bad teacher is a dangerous teacher who thinks that they're doing well. It's dangerous to be a teacher who does harm in the classroom out of ignorance, disregard, or frustration, while thinking that you're a "good" teacher. It's dangerous to think that you are saving or protecting your students from some undesirable future when you are actually perpetuating stereotypes and ideals that lead them down that very path. It's dangerous to think that avoiding discussions of dark histories and the even darker present, and focusing strictly on academic merit instead, will suffice in preparing all of our youth to thrive in today's world. 

I'm finally reading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood, and the Rest of Y'all Too, by Christopher Emdin, and even though I'm only in the first chapter, there are so many words that I had to highlight and underline because they ring so true. As a black teacher who was new to the profession, I often felt like I was on the outside looking in as black students were misunderstood, misinterpreted, and punished for reasons that they did not understand. 

As a black teacher, our battles involve having to keep our cool when helping inexperienced teachers, black or white, truly understand their students. As a white teacher, there is so much more to learn besides the content and none of it can be found in a textbook or guide, which is why I appreciate Emdin's work and his honest efforts in breaking it down. His book is an easy read that doesn't vilify white folks, but shows them, quite plainly, why and how they must consider and implement strategies to build relationships and understand their students. He also addresses the fact that black educators (nope, we're not off the hook) can learn something about teaching our kids and making sure that the message we send to other teachers and students in our approach is the right one. 

A few years of teaching and observing teachers in classrooms has proven to me that if your teaching experience is a matter of how much time you spend in the school building surrounded by kids, you've already fallen short. Living on top of the school made for a valuable learning experience, but I wish that my first teaching job required that each of us get involved in the community- whether helping out at a community organization, taking on a part-time position at a local business, or serving through active participation in weekend activities within the immediate community on a regular basis. While teaching at schools in New Hampshire and Austin (while predominantly white and removed from the typical city environment), this was something that I saw more regularly. Teachers chose to live in the same communities as their students, parents invited us over for dinner, we would see our students on the weekends, whether that was during a walk through the park or in line at the grocery store. Is the hood really that scary?

I admire the teachers and school leaders who make this a standard by leading by example in their schools' urban communities, and we can continue to tell teachers to get involved in their students lives, be present in the community, and try their best to understand the kids that they're trying to impact, but until it is a requirement, most teachers won't find the time to make those efforts sincere. Teaching is an all-consuming, tedious, multi-faceted profession that we, no matter what, have to make many sacrifices to do properly, and I wish all of that was verbalized in the employment contracts we sign every year. Maybe that would eliminate some excuses for not being able to "reach" our students. I remember teaching during the day, leading activities or coaching in the afternoon, going to grad school in the evening, sometimes still having to babysit after that, and still having to find the time to read student responses, grade, and plan for another day or week of lessons and discussions. We're expected to take on everything that we can with grace, sleep a few hours at night, and then wake up to repeat the whole process again. 

It's going to take collaboration and a change of mindset to make real changes, but wake me up when school leaders make it an expectation to research the communities that teachers work in to find the pockets and opportunities to get to know students and families outside of the walls of the building. Wake me up when discussions around community service planning are about more than picking up trash and volunteering in food pantries, but also meeting with other community leaders and having students voice their concerns. Wake me up when community involvement is a requirement to reach our students.


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