Here is another post from my forgotten blog. This is probably the most important thing I learned from my experience in Baltimore, maybe even in my entire teaching career.
One of my students in Baltimore, lets call him “James”, used to joke about being a “four year veteran” of our school. Middle school, of course, is only supposed to last three years. Whenever James had neglected class assignments or homework I would warn him that if he weren’t careful, he’d be a “five year veteran” of our school. To me, James didn’t appear to care about education in the least.
In Baltimore, at least when I taught there, middle school students had to apply to high school. The best students were skimmed by the “city-wide high schools” and the rest were relegated to zone schools. At the zone schools the drop out rates were so high that the freshman classes are larger than the sophomore, junior, and senior classes combined.
For my eighth graders, the period between applying for high school and receiving their acceptance letters was a time of terrible anticipation. During this time, a student of mine, “Suzie”, announced to her class that she had been accepted to Baltimore City College, one of the best of the city-wide schools, but that she wasn’t going. Knowing Suzie’s grades and test scores, I recognized her announcement as an attempt to save face, but smiled encouragingly. However, James began to lecture her about the importance of an education; telling her she had to go. “If I got into City,” he said, “I’d bust my work.” Suzie quickly admitted that she hadn’t been accepted at city, though she had gotten into one of the less competitive city-wides. The class went back to work, but that moment stayed with me. It wasn’t until then that I realized that James, despite appearances, valued education highly, but saw it as an unattainable goal.
I just finished reading “Self-Efficacy”, an article by Albert Bandura. The article is more real to me because I have known James. “There are countless attractive options people do not pursue because they judge they lack the capabilities [I would add opportunities] for them.” This is a sad reality for inner-city children. I believe one of the most important ideas with which we can equip our children, either as parents or as a society, is a sense of self-efficacy.
Fortunately for James, one of our administrators took him under her wing and helped him to transfer from the zone high school to a city wide after ninth grade. When I last saw him, he was on the football team and planned to be the first in his family to graduate high school. I’ve lost track of him, but I hope he made it.