Three Important Questions to Ask Before Committing to Work in Urban Education

Dr. Kelli Seaton, a fierce educator and friend, weighs in on three questions educators need to ask themselves before joining urban education.

What’s the difference between working in an urban school versus a suburban one? A private school versus a public one? If one were to sit in the teachers’ lounge (or wherever educators convene to honestly converse), one might here varying concerns depending on where they work.

Though there may be some common themes (e.g., budget constraints, student needs, parent involvement, evolving curricula, common core), there are certainly different challenges in urban schools with a history of low achievement, when compared to their suburban counterparts.

When seeking employment, or being recruited, to work in an urban school, there are some elements to consider. Is enough just to be passionate? Does having the skill ensure success? Is willingness the key to being effective? In sum, I’d say yes passion, skill and will are necessities. But I’d also suggest exploring your answers to the following questions:

  1. Do I believe the job is possible? At almost any education conference or beginning of the year training, I imagine most educators would shout, “Yes!  All children have a right to an excellent education.”  Here, we are not simply saying that we think all children have a right to an excellent education.  We are defining what the job is. It’s about contextualizing excellence.  Is the job to teach the motivated child from the middle class, two-parent household?  Is the job to make copies when there is no copy paper?  Is the job to build relationships with families when there is no a working number for every parent? Is the job to thrive when the school leader has less experience than the average teacher in the building?  Once we have examined our school context and have looked more deeply at what the job is, let’s consider our own capabilities when aligned to this awareness.
  2. Do I think that I capable of doing this job? With varying degree of copy paper, administer experience, student interest, and parent accessibility, we shout a resounding “YES! Yes, I believe.”   Now, though, we are moving from external examination to an examination of the self.  In essence we are asking, Am I up to snuff?   Will I still be passionate when I get to the copier 2 days before my lesson (of which I am very proud) and find that not only is there no paper, but there is a sign on the copier that proudly says, “Provide your own paper.  J”  I think about my bank account, the one that is getting nearer and nearer to 0 and wonder if I am cut out for this.  (Now to be clear, I recognize that every moment required personal sacrifice.  I just don’t know if I can afford this one and put gas in my 2011 Honda Civic.)
  3. Do I think I am capable of educating this particular group of students? I have my class roster.    Usually I teach the middle and upper achieving students.  On average, my classes this year are 3 grade levels behind.  Do I know how to do this?  In teacher education courses, we barely touched differentiation.  (Well, in theory we did, but in real life?  With real students?  Not so much.) This final question tends to be the trickiest one because it compels us to move from philosophical to practical.  It’s the one that can cause said educations to be labeled classist, racist, sexist.  This is the one that can lead us to feverishly search suburban job postings for the slightest chance of landing the one space for which seven hundred other educators applied because, as we know, people only leave suburban jobs if they retire, they become expatriates, or they strike it rich.

Here is the bottom line, if we sign up to work in a school or environment where the population has been historically underserved, we need to come to the table having honestly answered these questions. And if for some reason, we’ve answered no to one (or all) of these questions, does that mean you aren’t cut out for urban education?

Maybe.

But it also could simply be a way for us to assess what we need to do to grow in a way that will allow you to be the best for scholars. Every educator I know had areas of strength as well as areas of growth. So what’s the answer? First, let’s be honest with ourselves.  If we are the educator who struggles with a particular demographic, or doesn’t believe we have what it takes, then it’s our job to find educators that are successful and diligently work to replicate their habits and their mindset. Find out what that person believes about the work and about children. Examine how those beliefs translate into habits.

Bottom line: maintain where you are strong and work on the areas where you need to grow. And that means taking an honest assessment of one’s self on a pretty regular basis and then committing to do the work. Isn’t that the key to any success? Such is the same in the world of urban education.

You will be able to read more from Dr. Seaton here.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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