Monday, January 6, 2014


I'm back. 

It's been nearly a year since I've last written on Yo Mista! A lot has changed personally. Yet nothing has changed professionally. And I guess that's why I've been so uninspired to write. 

Over the last year, my professional life took a backseat to my personal life. When the dust settled, I realized I didn't want to write Yo Mista! anymore. I still felt passionate about my work, but I was somehow uninspired. My day-to-day at school over the last year hasn't changed. I still teach over-age, at-risk students at an alternative high school. Everyday, crazy shit happens in my classroom. Everyday, a student either feels supremely connected to me and my content or feels without direction and completely out of touch with education. My students and I still keep each other on our toes. The only problem is, I'm getting jaded. 

This is my fifth year of teaching at-risk youth and I'm getting tired of seeing students arrive to school high as a kite. Their lack of discipline is starting to irritate me. And I can't even blame them - who was there for them to teach them not to wake-and-bake when you're behind in school? No one. Or how to arrive to school on time? No one. Who was there for them to teach them when it's okay to curse and when it's not? No one. No one taught them that gaming, cheating, and hustling isn't a sustainable lifestyle for most. And even if these students did have an adult or two in their lives, that doesn't necessarily mean these adults are any different from their own kids. Babies are having babies and kids mirror the adults they see at home. This problem is rooted well beyond the classroom.

I'm really getting fed up teaching a year-long course that culminates with a high stakes state exam. It's fucking miserable. As a proper (and real) teacher, I want students to love learning. I want to teach them something they can use when they go home. Yet this country's education system can't trust me enough to perform this task, so they created benchmarks. They want data from me, so they can compare my kids to others. So, how do you generate data and compare across states, cities, and districts? You create standards and then test to those standards. When you've done this, you've created arbitrary gauges: everyone has to be "here" by age "X." This is a landscape fit for sheep, not creative outliers.

Forget loving to learn. Sheep are best trained when they've been told since birth about how important school is by over-involved, stressed out parents. That doesn't sound like most of my students' circumstances. Their circumstances haven't allowed them to learn how to be skilled multiple choice test takers. No one at home is prepping them for the college race. For this reason, my students are divergent and creative, and they're unwilling to blindly subscribe to a system that from their perspective funnels them into prison (just Google, "School to Prison Pipeline"). 

Schools were originally designed to meet the needs of our country's industry and work needs. Today, K-12 schools don't mirror our industrial needs anymore. Rather, they're an endurance test of grit, upbringing, and financial resources. The winners of this race get to graduate with a piece of paper that proves nothing (and proves no skill) and subscribe to the college lifestyle, which is another race but with a greater emphasis on financial resources. 

I can't imagine more than 10% of the at-risk population I teach being successful in college, where you're truly independent. No case workers constantly calling your house. No teachers hounding you to turn in missing assignments. No principals showing up at your door asking where you've been. My at-risk student population requires a fuck ton of manpower to squeeze out a little bit of success: we have different levels of administrators, double the number of teachers to keep class sizes down, guidance counselors, more case workers than any school I know, private hallway monitors, and a myriad of after-school programs. Even so, attendance is typically shit. It's clear traditional and non-traditional schools (which are pretty traditional, actually) are still not designed to cater to at-risk students.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know this: I need to stop measuring success using the same measuring stick that existed when I was in high school. That same measuring stick has become a baton, and it's beating our neediest kids down into prison. I need to stop getting mad at students when they can't make it to my 1st period class for the 3rd day in a row. In the past, I couldn't help but hold a secret grudge against them for that, probably because I knew I would never do such a thing - my discipline is crazy (thanks mom), but that doesn't make me a better person. 

For my students, constantly coming to class late typically means failing that class. What do they learn when they fail? This consequence means little to nothing to them until it's too late and they're about to age out of high school. Humans learn best in the moment of need. My kids aren't in this rat race towards the perfect GPA for the "reach" college; they just don't buy this shit. Personally, the older I get, the more I know that our current system of education is meaningless. On Wall Street, I worked with a bunch of guys from Ivy League schools, and I was definitely smarter than most of them when it came to financial modeling and using Excel to do math (and I went to a state school). All of this just doesn't matter and what university you went to certainly doesn't make you better. Does going to a university at all make you better? What if you can accomplish something great, be fulfilled, all without a college degree? It's possible through trade schools, apprenticeship models, and quality education programs, but that's not what this country is funding.

Happy 2014.


michelle said...

glad you're back Yo Mista -- a lot of good points here about the state of our education system. Really liked your last point about the need for apprenticeships and trade schools. Sitting behind a desk talking about geometry or books isn't for everyone, but that doesn't mean they're a lost cause. Keep writing the blog though - it's a good look into the education system for everyone else

Anonymous said...

doenuts here: AWESOME Post! I hope you keep writing. Thanks for bringing up the STP Pipeline. Your students are 1000% correct with their observations there (but I know you knew that).

Yo Mista said...

Thanks for the comments guys! It feels good to be back.

Mr. Serrao's Blog said...

I miss you buddy. Hope all is well.

Former Dean ;)

Anonymous said...

Well said. I recently home schooled an 11 year old with Aspbergers who could be the next Steve jobs now! The hardest thing was to explain to him that he must suffer through subjects that he hates and follow a curriculum from an entity that has already rejected him, only to get a piece of paper that gives him permission to do exactly what he's alreadycapable of doing.

Anonymous said...

I just came home from a long day teaching remedial literacy and cannot thank you enough for getting back in the game! I do the same work you do with half the time because the institution of higher education I work for requires that our program, lauded as one of the better remediation programs now in the country. We aren't, however, critically reading this space of learning, the remediation system that in and of itself is so deeply intertwined with the pipeline. We never talk about how many of the authors we read in our class were some of the most radical thinkers/rhetoricians/original non-native English speakers of their eras.

All the stuff I know students get to do in private schools from the age of 7, my students probably have never done and most likely never will do because most of their core professors are burnt out adjuncts (I was one once so I sympathize) and, especially at urban community colleges, some of the most conservative fucks you could ever imagine! No critical thinking around learning is going on in those classrooms, that's for sure.

Just wanted you to know we're feeling it on this side, too!

Yo Mista said...

@ Mr. Serrao:
I miss you too, man. We need to catch up soon.

@ Anonymous #1:
Thanks for your comment!

@ Anonymous #2:
That sounds awful, I feel your pain. Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

You expressed everything that I also feel. After 20 years plus working with students much like yours, I am opting out... I will retire this year. Fortunately, I am able to but it is bitter sweet. I wish I were leaving at the top of my game rather than as a burn out. I was a career changer when I entered teaching @ 40 years old and loved it. Over the last ten years, I have been worn down by the "revolutionary changes" that have failed to help our students.