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April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

Yo, Mister!

An alternative urban high school offers lessons on respect.

Yo, Mister!- thumbnail
Recently, Jamal, a 10th grade student from Cape Verde, walked into my classroom at Community Academy and told another teacher and me, “Yo, guys. I can't believe you. Any other teacher would've given up on us, but you have—what's it called? Determination.”
“You've got determination too,” my teaching colleague replied.
“Yes, Jamal,” I chimed in. “You have determination, and you help other students commit to their work.”
“Well, did you see that dude sitting next to me?” Jamal asked. “He wouldn't have stayed to complete the test if I hadn't.”
Jamal was acknowledging the efforts that teachers at Community Academy, an alternative public high school in Boston, Massachusetts, make to recognize him as a person and build a positive relationship with him. In today's education discourse dominated by reform and accountability, the nature of student-adult relationships is one of several “immeasurables” that policymakers rarely factor into the equation to assess student progress or school improvement. Relationships are often treated as secondary to test scores, policy prescriptions, and budgeting priorities. Yet research suggests a strong association between student-adult relationships and student retention, achievement, and aspirations, especially in an urban context (Stanton-Salazar, 2001; Valenzuela, 1999).

The Alternative High School Context

Teacher-student relationships are especially important at an alternative high school like Community Academy because the history of negative teacher-student experiences that many students bring with them can impede learning. Community Academy enrolls mostly students who have been expelled from traditional high schools. Only a few students choose our school; most were assigned by the school system or the juvenile courts. Many come to Community Academy harboring memories of disturbing experiences with the education system and poor relationships with adults in school settings. When I ask what happened at their previous schools, students often reply, “So-and-so didn't like me,” referring to a school adult. Whatever the reason they have ended up at Community Academy, my students generally view their experiences with adults along the way pessimistically.
In some ways, the bureaucracy treats our students as second-class citizens: The academy's classrooms need painting, the plumbing is unpredictable, and many classrooms don't have windows. I try to bring my students dignity in these conditions by affirming them as persons as well as students, by demonstrating my commitment to them, and ultimately by recognizing their existence.

Relationships First

Many of the 9th and 10th graders I teach live in difficult situations. They face a host of social and economic problems. Some are involved with the criminal justice system. It is important that I engage these youths relationally before I try to engage them instructionally.
For example, after a student I'll call Jeremy missed a day of school, I said, “Jeremy, I missed you yesterday. Are you all right?”
Jeremy responded, “Yeah, Mister. Had to take care of some stuff. Court stuff.”
“I hear you. Is everything good?”
“OK,” I said. “Let's get together and get the makeup work. I want you to understand this material I covered yesterday.”
Community Academy's small school and class size—I have between 7 and 15 students in a class—facilitate my ability to engage with students personally. But because of many exchanges like these, the nature of my relationship with Jeremy reaches far beyond the effects of any school structure.

Respect in Action

Classroom structure is crucial to keeping students engaged, and a good teacher can foster respectful relationships while hewing to a structure. I write a detailed, minute-by-minute agenda on a whiteboard for every class period. As the first agenda item, I require all students to do a warm-up exercise. A dialogue like the following takes place at the start of many class periods before the students get down to business on the warm-up.
Antoine: Mister, what time we get out of here today?Me: Regular time.Antoine: Come on, Mister. Let us get out early.Me: You just got here. All the school asks for is five hours a day. The other 19 hours in the day are all yours.Joaquin: Not really, because we sleep for a good part of that.Me: Good point, but you also woke up early, got ready, jumped on the bus, and made an effort to be here. That tells me that you are ready to learn.Raquel: He's got a point. OK, Mister, what do you have for us today?
At this point, everybody generally focuses and instruction begins. If a student enters the class after we have started warm-up, as often happens, I make it a point to greet that student politely and warmly. Acknowledging a latecomer's presence eases that student's transition into my classroom and extends a gesture of respect from teacher to student. I can do nothing at that moment to change the fact that the student arrived late, but I can control how I orient and treat the student as he or she enters my classroom.
As we complete each item on the agenda, I garner students' attention by asking, “Are we ready to check this item off and move on?” I wait until someone replies, “Yes, Mister, let's keep going.”
As students perform the warm-up, I circulate in the classroom and check their work, taking care to connect personally as well as coach them on content. The following typical exchange reflects my approach. Sinema asks for confirmation of the next calculation she needs to make. My first thought is to say, “Just try, and if you get it wrong, you'll eventually get it.” But I've noticed that my students are highly sensitive to criticism and quick to disengage if they are struggling with content. Sinema states, “I don't get this stuff,” and puts her thumb in her mouth. With pencil in hand, she stares into space.
I whisper to her, “Hey, how are you? Want to give it another try? You can do it. I can help you. You're a top student.”
She briefly glances at me and tries again. I walk her through the first step and urge her to take the next. After Sinema executes the problem perfectly, I say, “You see. You got it. Top student.”
She replies, “Mister, I wanna get out of here,” and smiles.
I go on to the next student needing help, then look back and see that Sinema is steadily trying to do the next problem. Our miniconference provided the support and encouragement she needed to persist.

Legitimizing Student Perspectives

It is important to affirm urban teens' perspectives. During a class discussion about preparing for college, for instance, I stressed that grades are important but that colleges also look for well-rounded students. Javier, an assertive freshman, immediately harped, “None of us will go to college. These colleges are going to look at the school we came from and know that we are a bunch of screw-ups.” Although Javier's view of the students and the school was overly negative, there was truth to it. High school quality matters.
I replied, “You have a good point. The quality of your high school does matter, but there's enough time to make things better. The school will do everything possible to prepare you for college.” Javier looked at me and nodded slightly, appreciating my respect for his viewpoint.
Legitimizing students' perspectives forces me to cross boundaries, often pushing me into uncomfortable, risky terrain. For example, at the end of each class, I ask students to critique my teaching in their math journal, providing guiding questions such as “How did I do as teacher today?” During one class, a few students critiqued my teaching out loud in front of an observing teacher. I was definitely put in a vulnerable position.
That day's lesson required students to take notes on key vocabulary terms in math. I had left terms and definitions that were written for the morning class on the board for the afternoon class, trying to rewrite words that had become messy. Students kept getting confused about what terms I was referring to as we worked through an equation that highlighted the vocabulary. They asked, “Which term are we on?” or “Did we do the third one yet?” I struggled; students sighed and grew frustrated or put their pencils down and said, “I give up.”
Javier called out, “Mister, what happened? You are disorganized today. You didn't prepare.”
I responded, “I prepared and organized the lesson in a way I thought you would understand.” He countered that the presentation probably made sense to me because I already knew the material. “Good point, Javier,” I said. “I'll try to be more conscious of that when I plan.”
After class, Jamal told me, “Yo, Mister, it was confusing to me, too, at the beginning, but everything started to make sense at the end. Can you show me another example?”
I said, “Absolutely. I appreciate your honesty and feedback.”
Although it felt uncomfortable to be told in class that my teaching was “off” that day, it was also enlightening and transformative. Javier respectfully took responsibility for his peers' lack of understanding of the lesson. In my view, his action was a result of the classroom culture we had created together as we developed trusting relationships.
Solid teacher-student relationships give urban adolescents an anchor as they learn in an often unpredictable environment. To help students respond to our efforts, teachers must first acknowledge students as persons, legitimize their knowledge and experiences, and engage with them personally and intellectually. In doing so, educators recognize students as whole people and show them that they are valued, thereby relaying a message of hope.

Stanton-Salazar, R. (2001). Manufacturing hope and despair: The school and kin support networks of U.S.-Mexican youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: Issues of caring in education of U.S.-Mexican youth. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

End Notes

1 All student names are pseudonyms.

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