What My Inner City School Experience Has Given Me

This is going to be a somewhat personal post. I have been pondering this for quite some time and have finally decided to write about it and share.

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For the past 2 and one half years I have been the vice-principal of an inner-city school in the school district where I work (not all our students come from low-income families, but enough of them do to give us an inner-city designation). Previously, I had been the vice-principal in two other schools – one in a middle-class area of our city and the other in a working class area of our district. All three schools have provided me with a variety of experiences which have helped me grow and learn a variety of  lessons about myself as a teacher, a leader, and as a person.

My experience in the inner-city school I work in now has been different. Different in so many ways. This school, the students, the parents/guardians, and the staff members have given me things that no other school I’ve worked in was able to provide. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a great deal at the other schools I have worked. I loved working there and made wonderful connections and developed long-lasting relationships with people. For me, this school has been different because while I have learned a great deal about being an administrator at all the schools I have worked, I have learned more about myself as a person at the school in which I presently work.

The current elementary school I call home has given me so much. It is difficult to explain in words all I have learned and how I have evolved as a result of these two and one-half years. After deep reflection, I will try to explain because I feel it is important.

Working in this inner-city school has provided me with a voice. A voice I was unaware that I needed to have. You see, growing up I was one of our students. I lived in a low-income housing complex with parents who were living and providing for their family on Social Assistance. At times, I lived in a pretty non-functional home environment. My parents did the best with what they had, but we had some pretty rough times. I was fortunate because I was a *good* girl, was good at “doing school” and, for the most part, did what I was asked. As a result, I fared better than other members of my family.

So, what do I mean about voice?

4803542425_21e7355746I grew up ashamed of how I grew up. Even as an adult, prior to coming to my present school, I was ashamed of my background. Ashamed of how I grew up. I would hide certain things about my history. I would hide things about my family. Things are different now. No longer am I ashamed. I have been given my voice. My voice is here to help. To help our students. To help our parents. To help our staff. To help fellow administrative colleagues. To help everyone understand. To help them feel empathy and compassion. My experiences have allowed me to tell some of my story to demonstrate that there truly IS hope for our students – even the students some may want to say have no hope. I am there to say that regardless of their history, regardless of the abuse, the neglect, we can (and do) make a difference for these children each and every day!  We must maintain this hope. We must believe it!

I am no longer afraid to use my voice. To tell some of my story. To provide hope for our students. To help provide some amount of understanding and, in turn, hopefully to help others develop some empathy.

My current experience has given me pride. I am now proud of my upbringing and how I have overcome the cycle of poverty, the cycle of abuse, and the cycle of addiction. Those do not define who I am or who I will become. Those do not define my own children. They do not have to define the future of our students either. They don’t. I am here to demonstrate that. Being the only one in my family to have ever graduated from high school (let alone get undergraduate and post-graduate degrees) is an accomplishment I hold onto dearly. It is also something I know my parents are extremely proud of.

6671856277_9c81ee191a_mFurthermore, working in this inner-city school has made me deeply committed to making learning interesting and engaging for our students. I see students who are disconnected from education, from school. With my deep understandings of how imperative school, and the connections that can be made here are, I want our students to stay in school for as long as possible. I want all our students to graduate high school and have future opportunities open to them that may not be provided to them without a high school diploma. I have a deeper understanding of the meaning of “school” and the meaning of “learning”. I no longer value the regurgitation that most often used to happen in school when we demonstrated our learning and received letter grades that followed. I see learning as being much more personal. Instead of being a competition with peers, it is a journey of self-discovery and moving from one place to another. This learning can (and should) be represented and demonstrated in a variety of ways – not just paper and pencil. I guess this is another way my voice has become more apparent. We need to find more ways to have our students learn about who they are as learners and individuals. We need to find more ways to keep our kids in school for the long haul. All students, not just those from “good” homes, but especially for those who need us most.

My experience has provided me with a new understanding of discipline. There has been a great deal of research and discussion over the last few years about effective discipline. Things have changed. What used to be considered effective – students missing outside playtime, for instance, to finish incomplete work or because of misbehaviour in class, is now considered to be unreasonable punishment by many. Instead, the emphasis now is on understanding and the importance of making personal connections with students and their families. Only once we have that deep understanding or awareness can we react effectively.  I am grateful that the staff in the school I work understand and live this daily. We have many challenging students who live in very challenging environments who demonstrate behaviour that would be considered as inappropriate by many. Our staff deals with these students very well because they take time to understand. It is when we have this deeper understanding that we will be able to understand Ross Greene when he says that “kids do well if they can” (You can watch his powerful video here).  Also, if you have not yet checked out The Whole Child Website, Blog and Podcast by ASCD, you really should. This movement focuses on the Whole Child and emphasizes the importance of children being in schools where they are  “healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged”. I believe strongly that if all students, in all schools, were provided with these opportunities, we would see a lot less discipline issues, more students connecting to adults in our schools and more children graduating high school.

6699398959_bcac30653a_mIt is through my experiences in this elementary school that I have a new understanding for parents and guardians. I used to be angry with my own parents. I used to wonder how they could have done the things they did. Instead of continuing to ask questions, I now believe that they did the best they could. I may not understand it all completely, but it is through my work at this school that I now have a new belief in people (including my own parents). Most people are good people and are doing the best they can with what they have. Most people would accept help, if it came in appropriate ways. But, mostly, it is not up to us to judge our students or their parents. Our job is to help educate the whole child. Our job is to assist in any way we can, without overwhelming or over-stepping our boundaries. It is our job to help make school a comfortable place for our students AND their family members. And not give up. Sometimes the smallest steps make the biggest impact. A smile. A wave. A brief conversation outside. Those matter. Relationships matter – not just with our students.

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I now understand how powerful my story can be for others to hear. Had I not been given the opportunity to work in my current position at this school, I am unsure that I would have come to this point of self-discovery. I wonder if I would still be hiding my story. I wonder how my voice would be different. I wonder how my educational pedagogy would be altered from what it is now.

What self-discoveries have you made over your time in education?

Were there certain specific environments that helped you develop a new self-awareness?

About Tia M. Dawson

There are many things that define who I am as a person. First of all, I am a mother of 3 wonderful children! I can not express how fortunate we are to have our children in our life! Secondly, I am a Principal of an elementary school Langley, BC. Lastly, I am a person who loves photography. I gain so much enjoyment and satisfaction taking photos. I have learned a great deal about photography since I purchased my first dSLR in 2008. There is so much more to learn though! All three of these things help to describe who I am as a person, but also demonstrate my love of learning - nothing is ever stagnant with any of these. I love to learn!
This entry was posted in Connections / Relationships, Leading the Learning, Learning, Lessons Learned, Personalized Learning, Poverty, Reflection, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to What My Inner City School Experience Has Given Me

  1. faige says:

    This is a wonderful and important post. Hiding who we are takes so much energy. Hope your voice leads others to speak up for what’s important. We are the sum of all our parts. Thank you for sharing.

    • T. Henriksen says:

      Hi Faige,

      You are right, hiding takes a great deal of energy. I remember times when I was younger though when I did not hide and then was judged for my upbringing. People can be incredibly judgemental. I do not worry about that anymore Some may judge me for this post, but it is who I am and part of being an authentic person and leader is being honest with oneself and with others and sharing things that may be personal in nature (and perhaps, difficult to share, as a result). I also hope that posts such as this one will help others tell their story. We all have stories to tell and obstacles we’ve overcome (in the past and present). These stories can help others in so many different ways.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  2. carriegelson says:

    Tia I am so happy you wrote this post. This is my 19th year teaching in an inner city school and I love all of the things it has taught me – although the challenges sometimes are huge. I don’t share your childhood experiences but I can see how powerful your life perspective and your perspective now must be and how you must be constantly rethinking, figuring things out and deepening your understanding. Relationships, relationships, relationships – it’s what it is all about in schools like ours. And yes, that each small thing can be huge. Thank you again for sharing your learning, your history and your thoughts. Maybe one day we can meet in person and talk over coffee about the rich experiences of working in an inner city environment. Best to you.

    • T. Henriksen says:

      Hi Carrie,

      Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s true, it is all about relationships! You can get no where, with students, or adults for that matter, without first developing and then nurturing relationships. Yes, as you said, no matter how long you work in an inner-city school, you learn something new each and every day. Every day brings new challenges. You don’t work in an inner-city school environment for as long as you have without really loving kids and wanting to make a difference in their life. I’m sure you know what an amazing impact you make on a daily basis (even though it is often very difficult).

      I’d love to meet and chat sometime! I’m sure we could share some interesting, heartbreaking and heartwarming stories.

      Thanks, Carrie!

  3. Thank you Tia, for always writing from the heart. Our past stories are what brings meaning to our present lives. Even though my story differs greatly from yours, I too felt a bit ashamed of where I grew up. But thankfully my story has developed deep core values which I try to encourage with my students.
    Your school, the students, staff, parents – all are lucky to have you helping steer the boat.
    Anne-Marie

    • T. Henriksen says:

      Hi Anne-Marie,

      You are right – we all have our own stories, that’s for sure. Our stories affect the way we interact with everyone around us. Fortunately, we have a choice as to whether or not we make this a positive experience or not. Like you, it is my hope that we all learn from our past and positively influence our students (and others with whom we interact) in ways only we can as a result of this past experience. I am sure you are an amazing source of inspiration for your students and others around you. Thank you for your kind words. I am grateful to be a part of this wonderful community.
      Tia
      🙂

  4. jessica beggs says:

    This post is so moving because of your sincerity. You treat others with such respect and I feel honoured to educate and grow with you. Your empowered voice will have a ripple effect more awesome then you will ever know lasting lifetimes for many. You rule Tia!

    • T. Henriksen says:

      Thanks, Jess. What kind words you always have – for me and our students! We are very fortunate to be able to impact students in such positive ways at our school. I am so grateful to work with such wonderful, inspiring educators, such as you!

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