The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews describes John Thompson’s A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving and Listening to Our Kids as “riveting,” “deep,” and “revealing.”
Mathews has watched the DC schools for more than a generation and has “seen what Thompson describes many times.” The veteran reporter writes, “Thompson witnessed at his urban school ‘this accountability-driven reform . . . imposed, unfortunately, by advocates of disruptive change who typically had little knowledge of high-poverty K-12 schools’ … ‘Inner city schools need more disruption like we need another gang war.’”
Mathews was struck by an incident at the beginning of Thompson’s first day in an Oklahoma City high school. Local readers might be interested in the full account of the teacher’s introduction to a troubled high-poverty school, and one lesson he learned from a student with the pseudonym of “Micah:”
During my first few minutes at John Marshall High School, I broke up a gang-related fight, was punched twice, witnessed extremes of inappropriate behavior and academic excellence, traversed the “T” or transitional hall for overage at-risk students, and then taught an Advanced Placement U.S. history class for students destined for elite universities. Just before entering the college-level classroom, I greeted my old Sleepy Hollow camper.
Moving on, I overheard some “wannabe” gangsters teasing Micah for being on a first-name basis with a teacher.
“He’s my parole officer,” Micah replied.
The next day, I jumped Micah and jacked him up against the wall, telling him to go pee in a cup. The natural-born comedian played along. As shocked passersby recognized the spoof, laughter erupted throughout the hall. That was the first of many times that Micah would help me gain the “props” or respect that – rightly or wrongly – teachers were required to earn before they could teach effectively in tough urban schools.
… It was a joy for me to teach my old friend, but he dropped out during his sophomore year. A couple of years later, a brawl at the front of the school was morphing into a riot that attracted carloads of gangbangers. I was alone at the back parking lot when a convoy of new combatants entered. Assuming they were armed, I sought to remain calm and authoritative when approaching the lead car packed with gang members. The sound of screeching tires prompted them to brake. A big blue car sped into the lot and stopped between the convoy and me. Micah took charge and told his “soldjas” to leave. As I started breathing again, Micah’s instructions were obeyed, the cars exited the lot and turned left, away from the fights.
My student’s loyalty illustrated a key lesson from my early years. The first priority is the building of trust, care, and relationships. Creating a school culture of respect is the key. And by respect, I do not mean the street code definition principle. Getting there from where we stood, enmeshed in the violence and disorder of the inner city, was more complicated than many non-educators understand.
– Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer, has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics. His latest book, from which the above excerpt is taken, is available through Tate Publishing.