What my students taught me



When I began my teaching career, I was 21 years old and had just graduated from the University of Notre Dame. I had a brain full of knowledge, a degree in Spanish literature with a concentration on Argentinian literature, and a toolbox full of pedagogical brilliance. I returned to New Jersey to teach at a vocational high school in Camden County, New Jersey, and I had the unwavering desire to inspire all the children though exciting lessons about conjugating verbs.

Through a strong education curriculum in college, I had read about poverty and its effects on behavior and learning courses, but I was unprepared for what it looked like in reality. I learned very quickly that my students had little to no interest in my lessons. It wasn’t because I was particularly boring (although maybe I am…just ask some Criminology students), but because they had little room for academic concerns when they were hungry, scared, or tired. They suffered from the same problems as many of their white, suburban counterparts, such as bullying, stress, and friend drama, but in addition, they were also wrestling with problems about which I knew nothing. I felt as though I was woefully inadequate in understanding their experiences with gangs, violence, incarceration, and drugs. Coming from a relatively affluent background, I had no idea how to talk to my students about their problems, and I was even less prepared to address the violence that I saw on a weekly basis. I did, however, learn quickly.

In the first fight I ever encountered, two students burst into my room between classes and tried landing punches as they knocked over desks and chairs. When one of the students hit the other, the impact broke her glasses and cut her face. By the end of the fight, there was hair and blood on all over the floor, and I was unsure how to go about teaching when there had just been a battle in my classroom. I remember other fights just like that one, and it became part of a workplace ritual. Break up a fight, talk the other students down, and then salvage my lesson plans about first-person verbs.

I sought answers in higher education. I attended the University of Pennsylvania for my counseling degree so that I would have the tools to help my students. When I completed my practicum and my internship, I listened to my students’ stories and realized how many of their lives were affected by the criminal justice system through their own experiences or that of their family members or friends. My questions didn’t end there, so I continued my education in criminal justice, focuses on gangs and school violence. I wanted my days to involve prevention instead of reaction, and I accepted a counseling position in the school district to do just that.

Through my own experiences and education, I’ve learned about the important role that teachers, counselors, and schools play in the lives of students. In recent years, I’ve studied mass shootings and school violence, but the current discussions about children being afraid to go to school bring me back to my years in the classroom. Many of my students were afraid all the time—at home, in their neighborhoods, and at school—and researchers and educators have long known about the effects that such fear has on learning. These students, who always have a place in my heart, were often labeled as thugs, gangbangers, delinquents, or dangerous, but they were still children who were products of a community, family, and environment that left little room for missteps.

There are heartwarming stories of children who “made it out” and went on to college and lucrative jobs. After Jamal dropped out of community college, he realized that he needed to try again. He recently graduated from William Paterson University in New Jersey and is considering an MBA program. Lamar, who was arrested and incarcerated, has served his time and is now a loving father with two children and works two jobs to support his family. He has video conferenced with each of my Introduction to Criminology classes to talk about his experiences.

There are others, though, whose stories end tragically. After being expelled from school, Carey joined the Crips and sold crack. When he was under the influence, he killed a cab driver and was sentenced to 32 years in prison. A newspaper article about him may make him seem like a monster, but I remember the 15-year-old boy who sat in my classroom and smiled when I chastised him for talking. ShaPaul was expelled after numerous attempts to address his behavior, and he was shot and killed by a 17-year-old in Camden one month before he was to graduate from another high school.

I miss my former students, and there was a certain level of fulfillment in being a part of the front lines of education. My friends at the school still tell me stories about the madness of their days that involve race wars, fistfights, and scandals, and I compare them to my days at St. Vincent. But my goals at the college are much different, and that’s why I chose to write my forthcoming book, Everyday School Violence. I wanted to provide educators with tools, research, and skills to prevent violence for their own safety and that of their students. By merging education, psychology, and criminology, the book and the upcoming symposium aim to offer educators skills in de-escalation and conflict resolution as well as the opportunity to plan programs and implement policies that keep everyone safe with an eye toward institutional change.

I believe that it is in the true Benedictine spirit that we look to improve schools and communities for the most marginalized and under-resourced communities. There is an urgent need for highly-qualified educators in these areas, and there is an even greater demand for research-based policies that keep everyone safe while avoiding the trap of discarding students deemed as “undesirable.” The problems are pressing, overwhelming, and far-reaching, but there is progress to be made.

In hindsight, it’s hard to recognize the school-to-prison pipeline when you’re working in it every day, but it’s real, it’s tangible, and it has long-lasting effects on the students in its grasp. If educators have and use the skills to work with students in a meaningful way, violence may not make its way into everyday experiences. If schools can change the focus from punitiveness to rehabilitation and help, it may change the ways that students learn, experience school, and think about the future. I’ve often been called an idealist (among other things), but I believe that training educators to prevent violence can change the trajectory of students’ lives. If they leave school with a diploma rather than assault charges, the future looks drastically different for them. My students and their families taught me more in my first year than I learned in 14 years in higher education.

They taught me about compassion, resilience, and humility, and their experiences inspire me to get out of bed everyday and do the work that I do. We owe it to them and to future generations to work for change and progress.

Dr. Sarah E. Daly is an Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law, & Society, and she teaches courses such as Mass Violence, School Violence, and Policy Analysis. The symposium on school violence is on Thursday, April 26 from 9am-2pm at the Fred Rogers Center. To RSVP, please contact Sandra Frye at sandra.frye@stvincent.edu.

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