Talks with Teachers #1: Mutual Respect


“You have to prove your commitment to the students, but that commitment has to be to making them a better student not to changing them into something you think they should be.”

Talks with Teachers is a new monthly column here at The Rumpus aimed at exploring a profession often taken for granted–that of the public school teacher. Every month, Oriane Delfosse will interview a different educator to discuss their experience, with an emphasis on getting an honest assessment of life as a teacher in America.

Teaching. As a profession, it feels familiar to us. Reassuring perhaps. Or commonplace. When we meet a teacher, we might ask ‘What grade? What subject?’ and leave it at that. After all, we went to school. We sat at uncomfortable desks, copied notes from the blackboard, visited the pencil sharpener so often we ground that thing to a useless nub. We did our homework or didn’t; resented our teachers or were inspired by them; graffitied the bathroom stalls or always aimed to please. Whatever way our story goes, we think we know what teachers do on a daily basis because we fill in the blanks with our own experience.

But schools are wildly different from one another, both from neighborhood to neighborhood and from state to state, which makes our projections limited at best. And things have changed since we were in school. No Child Left Behind has gone into effect, charter schools have become more prevalent, ‘teaching to the test’ has become a go-to phrase. Kids grow up with the Internet at their fingertips, cell phones in their pockets—they can cheat on tests through texting. Forget texting, they ‘sext!’ Talk about a game changer.

In this month’s Talks With Teachers, I spoke with an old friend that I’ll call Rachel,(she requested that her name be changed out of respect for her students) who is a high school teacher in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.  Short, white, and in her early thirties, Rachel gives off a relaxed, laid-back vibe that, since moving to Brooklyn five years ago, is now laced with a little ‘don’t fuck with me’ attitude. The school where she teaches was originally part of a large comprehensive high school notorious for violence and low graduation rates.  In 2004, it was shut down for failing to meet the standards established through No Child Left Behind and broken into four smaller schools, each now occupying a floor of the original school building. Over 75% of students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch and the school accepts Title I funding from the federal government, which basically means that the school primarily serves students who live in poverty. Here’s what Rachel had to say about her school, her students, and her life as a teacher.

The Rumpus: What drew you to teaching? Tell me a little about where you taught before moving to Brooklyn.

Rachel: Both my parents were extremely dedicated teachers so I had a pretty good idea what the job had in store, but growing up, I always thought I wanted no part in it all.  I just knew I didn’t want a desk job and I wanted to feel like I was contributing to the world as a whole.  In college, I developed an interest in social inequality and began to think that schools would be a good place to be a part of the solution. My first full time teaching position ended up being at a school in central Virginia where I had previously volunteered—an alternative public school that took in students from other schools in district. The students were sent there because they had major behavioral problems or had done something really dangerous, like bringing a weapon to school. I knew pretty quickly that teaching was a good fit and that I actually enjoy spending time with teenagers and all their craziness. The experience taught me that a lot of teaching has to do with your personality–you need to be tolerant, open-minded, and easy going, but also firm and quick on your feet. I’ve always been more interested in the big picture than a subject area, so I’ve ended up teaching all kinds of different classes. And I’ve always worked in schools dealing with more difficult students and more challenging communities.

Rumpus: Schools are like little micro-communities, right? What’s the vibe at the school in Crown Heights where you currently work?

Rachel: The school is about 98% African American and Caribbean immigrant (either first or second generation).  The other 2% is Latino or African.  We’ve had one white student in four years I have taught there. It’s a pretty small school, relatively speaking: There are about 435 students in seven grades ranging from 6th-12th. There are about 40 people on staff, which includes teachers and other support staff–school aides, social workers, a guidance counselor, and several staff members who work for our partner organization, a local nonprofit in the neighborhood.

Rumpus: Given that you went from teaching in a small town in Virginia to teaching in an urban ‘inner city’ school in Brooklyn, what are your thoughts about the rural versus urban experience?

Rachel: Teenagers are teenagers–bottom line.  They are all people trying to figure out their way in the world.  I must say that more than rural and urban, there are differences based on economic status and marginalization by society. The students with discipline issues in Virginia and in Brooklyn have similar attitudes, and all of them have had family issues and struggled economically. I am involved in this really interesting program that organizes an exchange between my Brooklyn students and a group of students from a lobster fishing community in Maine. The purpose is to break down some stereotypes and come to the realization that teenagers, no matter their race or location, have a lot in common. These two groups also share some similar issues in terms of their families, which has added another layer of understanding.

Rumpus: I know you have a lot of stories—can you tell us one to get us started? Maybe one that illuminates some aspect of your life as a high school teacher?

Oriane Delfosse is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in Best New American Voices 2008 and Storyscape Journal, among other publications. She has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. from the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols Scholar. She has lived in Wyoming, Brooklyn, and Croatia, and now calls San Francisco home. More from this author →