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Learning at its Best

Do I Still Have a Place Here?

I wish it had been more like this

I teach in the shell of a once-suburban enclave of Phoenix. We have pretty euphemisms for it. Low-SES. Title One. Poverty. Underprivileged. Diverse (in the deep-red state of Phoenix, it’s the new red-line phrase warning white flight to move not only across town but into gated cookie-cutter communities).

I drive to school this morning overwhelmed by the needs and the power and the beauty and the voice of the community.  I’m wondering if I have a place within it. I’ve got job security, true. But I’m wondering if I’ll always be, on some level, a stranger.

The police are handcuffing a kid. Really just a kid, no matter how awful his crime. He doesn’t look angry or scared. Just blank. I’m hoping it’s only an act, because true boredom, deep detachment is more dangerous than anything explosive anger can offer.  I’m already too jaded to cry right now. But it’s still enough to push me toward a general melancholy that “Morning Edition” just can’t shake. I switch to Sufjan Stevens. Give me a sad banjo and a wispy voice to sooth my nerves.

I drive past an empty big box store tagged up in a pissing contest. It isn’t a crime against property, but against art itself. Go to the canal or the tracks and you’ll see the ever-evolving museum of words and images and icons exploding organically into art. But this feels unintentional. It feels uncreative. It feels . . . just as criminal as the big box store that came and went so that we could get cheap plastic shit from China at bargain basement prices; one long consumerist orgy and now the whole city is too tired to clean the sheets.

I get stuck behind a school bus. I’m impatient, tapping my feet, trying my best to get into the Sufjan Stevens song blaring through my speakers. A mom buttons her daughter’s jacket.  I forget, with my heater blasting, how deceptively cold it can get on a Phoenix morning. I see a former student wearing his varsity jacket, and he’s bent down smiling, holding a pick and finishing the last touches on his sister’s hair. He pulls out a pink beret and as he struggles to snap it on, she turns and kisses him on the cheek.

He catches my eye and gives me the nod. Not a wave, but an acknowledgment that I am a part of his story. We used to pack boxes at the food bank and he would pick fights with well-intentioned volunteers who would congratulate themselves by talking down these neighborhoods. And if someone made a comment about the sense of entitlement, he would ask who paid for their college degree and their first car and their Little League fees. And then just when he had knocked them down, he would pull them up with a handshake and a conversation about sports or t.v. or a current event.

I don’t know what’s best for this community. I don’t know which model is ideal. I am intrigued by unschools and small schools and homeschools, but I’ve been in enough homes to know just how many hours people work.

Context matters.

Any true learning has to belong to the community. It has to be shaped locally. Call it parochial. Call it close-minded. But whether it is social or civic or cultural, if it’s human it can’t be disconnected from context.

And so here I am, the white guy, the power figure, the man from the middle class coming in to teach. I don’t want to colonize. I don’t want to engage in imperialism 2.0. I don’t want to fix this community (it’s no more or less broken than my “increasingly diverse” suburban neighborhood).

Still, I hope. Maybe it’s a crazy hope. Maybe it’s delusional.  But my hope is this: I can still have a place here if I’m willing to listen and to serve and to admit that sometimes I miss the voice in the midst of my own white noise.

photo credit: by Franco Folini on Flickr Creative Commons

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John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


13 thoughts on “Do I Still Have a Place Here?

  1. Beautiful.

    Posted by Carol Black | January 31, 2012, 12:13 pm
  2. Thank you. This is quite beautiful.

    Posted by dloitz | January 31, 2012, 3:14 pm
  3. John, To me this is one of the most moving posts you’ve ever written here. I really appreciate it. This is often the kind of internal dialog that runs through my head as I’m driving to a school for a visit. Thank you for making this visible, this knowing and not knowing.

    Appreciatively, admiringly, in support,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | January 31, 2012, 4:25 pm
  4. “Context matters.”

    Quite possibly the two most powerful words you can use, which are too often neglected in favor of gasbaggery. Great post.

    Posted by Tom | January 31, 2012, 6:26 pm
  5. Great post.

    Perhaps a realization you have a ‘real’ place where you are, albeit not one you had initially imagined?


    Posted by Brent Snavely | February 1, 2012, 8:31 am
  6. John, I really appreciate this post. I have been working in schools with labels like “Title I,” “Low SES,” etc… for the better part of a decade and I’ve often reflected on the ride from my neighborhood in the same city to the neighborhood I teach in.

    What’s crazy is that for all the money in the world, I don’t know if I could ever leave this setting to teach in a suburban school. There’s something about the kids, the challenge, the realness of teaching in a setting where nothing comes on a silver plate. In fact, with my teaching experience starting on a Navajo reservation, I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced teaching students who look like me or with whom I share a common background.

    At the same time, I often wonder what parents and even my kids think of me. I wonder if they see me as just another middle class white woman teaching their kids while they wish that their child had a teacher who looked more like them?

    I have been called racial slurs by students, I have witnessed parents calling teachers every name under the sun. This discourages me, but I also am also encouraged by the relationships I have built with parents and with my students. When I can no longer make those connections then I know that I need to move on.

    Posted by marybethhertz | February 5, 2012, 8:47 pm
    • I love your honest reflections, Mary Beth. I have faced some similar obstacles (racial slurs, etc.) and have often felt crushed by the complexity of a racialized society. But I think the connections are huge and in the end, compassion is a pretty universal value.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | February 6, 2012, 9:54 pm

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