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Teacher Feature...
Getting To The Laughter
by Georgia Hedrick

At-risk kids are never "enough." They are not smart enough, or hard-working enough, or frugal enough, or appreciative enough, or wise enough to be accepted by society in general. They don't even laugh enough.

Or so it seems to us, standing on the outside, looking in.

I think this is what makes them "at-risk": they don't meet anyone's expectations, and they don't meet their own expectations. The only expectation they come near to meeting is that of being "at-risk" of never meeting expectations.

They are at-risk of losing their place in a society where education and money mean home-ownership and success.

They just don't have enough of what it takes. They aren't grateful enough when people reach out to help them. They aren't needy enough, in all the areas that those who help them feel they should be needy in. They aren't wise enough or consistant enough in all the choices they make to survive. In short, they are at-risk of failing. Part of the reason why they are at-risk of failing is they are so poorly informed in the world of wise choices, the sort of choices we would make for ourselves to succeed in today's society.

For example: they may choose to buy a leather coat but not have the money to pay the heating bill. They may buy those "flashing light" Reeboks for their child yet never take that same child to the dentist for teeth that are rotting. They may fly the entire family back to Puerto Rico or Mexico or El Salvador for the holidays but be on food stamps and free lunch.

At-risk children are Poor children, with the first poverty being--the poverty of ignorance. And all their other poverties stem from this first of all poverties--ignorance. Study, research, observation, discussion leads to knowledge. But who will lead this study with the at-risk child/family? Who will sharpen up their observations or go with them into research as to the better way to choose and to be? Who will discuss alternatives?

Who will be their teacher?

Parents. Parents are the natural teachers. But what if no one has taught these parents but the parents of these parents, then ignorance perpetuates itself. Who will teach the teachers? Who will break the cycle? Who will widen the horizon, broaden the vision, open the eyes and make the first "why" and "how come" be born?

Me. You. Any and all of us in the profession of education who really want the challenge.

Teaching "at-risk" kids is a challenge--more than any other kind of teaching challenge ever encountered. I've been at it for some 34 years now. Every day is brand new. Every day I learn something new. Every day, I get better at doing what I love most, teaching.

In regular teaching, you and the kids and the parents of the kids are all working from the same point of view, the same value system, the same paradym. Your words mean the same ideas when they land in the mind of those students. The only challenge is to make it more fun, more interesting, more productive.

Big deal. Anyone with something to sell to an audience that speaks the same language and has the same values can do that. It is really no big deal if you succeed with such a class. Ho hum.

Teach an "at-risk" child and reach that child and make a difference in his or her life so that they do succeed in our society and you may now feel proud. You may now say with tears in your eyes and a bubbly throat: I TEACH. I REALLY, REALLY TEACH. I AM A TEACHER.

Now you deserve a pat on the back, now you can truly feel above the rest, now you have really done something. You have taught.

What is it like, to teach the at-risk child? It is to speak the same words with total awareness that not one of the words you are saying means the same thing to the listener. It is to spend your time investigating what it is that you said, really said, what sense it made, and how close did what you say come to what you really wanted to say. It is to listen.

It is to listen, to parents, to body language, to absences and patterns of absences, to whatever is said to you in all the thousand ways a message is given and to think about it. It is to convert what you know and what the child knows (already) and what the parent knows into a weapon called: communication. It is to make sense to each other. It is to start from there and keep on--no matter how tired you get, or how frustrated, or how disheartened, or how hopeless. It is to keep on. It is to get to the laughter.

When you get to the laughter--where you laugh and the kids laugh and the parents laugh--then you know that you have just begun to teach. Now you are all speaking the same language. Now you can pick up from there and do the stuff that all your regular compatriots are doing--make the stuff fun and interesting and productive.

However, I've only been at this "at-risk" business since 1966 - 4 years previous I was middle-classing it - so I'm still learning.

Oh, you say, what about the discipline? Well, what about it? Problems only come when you are in one world, and students are in another and you both end up shouting at each other because of the distance. Problems come because you didn't listen enough, or observe enough, or research enough, first. It makes sense to me that you first do that before you ever jump into an "at-risk" school with too high a heart.

Unless you do first what you want those children to do, which is to research by observation and study and discussion what it is all about, you will be "at-risk" of failing as an "at-risk" teacher. (Which might not be such a bad idea because then you will know the feeling of what it feels like to be "at-risk" - that total sense of ineptitude and incompetence, your students feel when they come to school.)

What's it like to be a teacher of "at-risk" children? It is to get a thank-you letter some 30 years later from a former 6th grade student, once newly arrived from Cuba, with whom you spent time after school teaching English. It is to hear from a long-ago 7th grader who calls you "Mom" over the phone, telling you how she's a teacher now, just like you. It's to find a note on your desk from a 4th grader you once taught saying: "Thank you for teaching me how to do almost everything." It is to get a letter in the mail that tells you: "You will never know the difference you have made in my life."

It's risky business teaching the child labeled, "at-risk." And what's at risk is your retirement--you may never want to start it.

    - Georgia Hedrick, First grade teacher, Reno, NV
    34 years teaching experience