5 Lessons Learned from a First Year in Urban Education

Many of us think that we are good at our jobs. Some of us even think we are great at them. But I have a challenge for you: The next time you think you are good at your job, change almost every single thing about it, increase your difficulty from normal to very hard, and see if you are still as good as you thought you were.

In essence, this is what I did when I left the suburbs and came to work in Southeast Washington, D.C. Here’s what I learned.

Lesson #1: Confidence can be an ally and an enemy.
Figure out your weaknesses, and fail fast.

I thought I was an amazing teacher. I thought I was the kind of teacher that made students want to become a teacher. What I didn’t realize was that I had only taught privileged students in an environment that presented very few challenges. I taught in a palace far away from the problems my current students face every day.

My move to D.C. showed me that not every school was like the one I had taught in or grown up in. While I knew schools had challenges, I showed up to my first day in an urban school unprepared and unequipped for the challenges that I was about to face. My confidence had led me to take on a “great big challenge.” But in the end, it also allowed me to avoid facing the facts about my teaching weaknesses as soon as I should have.

Lesson #2: Get your story straight.                                           
Be yourself. Be genuine. Be real.

“Who is Mr. Ford? Why should I care about anything you have to say to me?” My good friend Alex Brown, also an Education Innovation Fellow, asked me that as we sat in our hotel room during the Fellowship trip to Chicago discussing how our year was going. Alex challenged me to find what was real about myself. He saw something that I had been unable to see.

As a teacher, I had a messaging problem. I didn’t present my real self to my students, and they quickly saw right through it. Our students deserve for us as teachers to be our real selves and to be authentic when we interact with them.

Lesson #3: Check yourself…frequently.
You don’t know what you don’t know.

Alex’s comments also led me to another area of reflection: It was time to confront race. Being a socially conscious person, I thought I understood what white privilege was. But I did not.

This year, I grappled with issues that my life had not previously forced me to face. I saw the different ways that people are looked at and treated; the assumptions that people make about students based on their race and where they come from; the different ways we frame what we teach.

These issues were sometimes very difficult to articulate and discuss, but the conversation they prompted has changed me forever. My first year in D.C. taught me that I need to be conscious of how my reality is not the same as my students’ reality. It also has pushed me to recognize the injustices around me and to work to make our society better in whatever small way I can.

Lesson #4: Times of hardship determine who we are.
“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.” —Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa

In a one-week period, I buried my best friend, went to the funeral of a former player, got my car towed, and lost my job. As part of the reconstitution of Ballou Senior High School, I was excessed. I was devastated. I had thrown my entire life into disarray in order to take this leap of faith and move to an urban school, and I fell flat on my face. I was struggling with all of the whys and hows that you could imagine. I wondered if education was still the right place for me.

It is really easy to say that you love something before it gets hard. You don’t have to make as many high-stakes decisions when things are good. When things fall apart, you have to decide how to pick up the pieces.

I chose to learn. I made more mistakes than I can count last year, but I learned and got better from every single one. I am ten times the teacher I was before I came to DC. To once again quote Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa, “It’s not about how hard you hit—it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Lesson #5: Remember why it is that you do what you do.
“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” —Steve Jobs

Teaching is my passion. It makes me feel alive. It is the hardest thing that I have ever done and it continues to be on a regular basis. Even with—and sometimes because of—those challenges, I am proud to call myself a teacher. Teaching is what I am meant to do. It is has me excited to get out of bed every morning. It has me ready to pull long hours for not a lot of pay in order to make sure my students get the best that they can.

Another friend and Education Innovation Fellow, Claire Finn, told me last school year to “do whatever [I] had to in order to protect [my] love of teaching.” She told me that my love of teaching was more important than any one school or any one position. Most of us who teach choose this profession because it is more than just a job to us. It is what wakes us up early in the morning with a new lesson plan idea. It is what keeps us up, tossing and turning, before the first day of the new school year. It is what gives us the strength to bring our best to our students every day, even when the challenges both we and our students face are immense.

Remember why you do what you do. I teach because on the best days it doesn’t feel like work. And on the worst, I can go home, kick off my shoes, loosen my tie, and say, “What can I do better tomorrow?”

Nick Ford, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
DC SEED School


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