Cohen taught English and humanities for a dozen years in the Los Angeles Unified School District before leaving to earn a doctorate at the University of Southern California and work at the nonprofit Los Angeles Education Partnership as a schools transformation coach. At the end of his doctoral journey, Cohen took a job at a large South Los Angeles high school as the instructional coach for the faculty and staff, and, to see if he had become a more effective teacher as a result of his studies, he successfully lobbied to teach one ninth-grade class each day.
His experience was nothing like what he expected. “Now,” he writes, “I often wonder if returning to the classroom may have been a mistake.”
By Brock Cohen
About three years ago, I left my position as a full-time English and humanities teacher at a large high school in a high-poverty community. Leaving the classroom was a difficult decision. Not only was teaching my passion; over the course of my 12-year career, it had become my identity. I was good at it, I enjoyed it, and I cared deeply about my students.
What caused me to leave teaching behind stemmed mainly from my deep dissatisfaction with how little a decade-plus of major education reforms had helped my students to become more self-directed, creative, and analytical thinkers. Each year, the No Child Left Behind accountability noose tightened around the necks of struggling, yet well-intentioned, schools like mine, and each September, multitudes of students entered my classroom exhibiting the same academic struggles as in years past.
My growing desire to disrupt a deeply flawed institution was at odds with the time and craftsmanship necessary for me to be the teacher my students needed me to be. I also knew that being an effective reformer meant broadening my own perspective and expanding my skill set. With these thoughts in mind, I decided to pursue a doctorate in K-12 Education Leadership. Soon after starting my doctoral program, I transitioned from the classroom to a position at an L.A. education nonprofit whose work I had admired for years.
While working at a nonprofit enabled me to experience public education from a new and valuable perspective – and the flexibility needed for a full-time grad student – my doctoral journey turned out to be a life-altering experience that pushed me to my intellectual and emotional limits.
When it came time to prepare for my field research and dissertation on learning environments in urban high school classrooms, I read dozens of studies whose findings revealed that a classroom with a caring teacher and supportive peers, while crucial, wasn’t enough to make powerful learning happen. Neither was a class that demonstrated the presence of rigorous, engaging activities but not the trust and connectedness needed to take intellectual risks. In a nutshell, all of the research said you had to have a caring, supportive classroom climate and academic rigor.
This was gratifying news for me: I was confident that I had been mindful to cultivate both during my decade-plus stint as a practitioner.
As I reached the final stages of my doctorate, I began to wonder whether I would be an even more effective teacher now that I was privy to the expansive body of research that tells us about the conditions under which children learn best. This curiosity, combined with a growing feeling that I had walked away from my true calling, led me to consider a return to the classroom just as many of my colleagues were transitioning into vaunted leadership posts throughout greater Los Angeles.
Days after giving my final defense this past summer, I accepted a position at a large South Los Angeles high school that tasked me with serving as the instructional coach for the entire faculty and staff while also teaching one ninth-grade class each day. The teaching piece wasn’t originally part of the job, but I lobbied for it. As much as I enjoyed supporting teachers, I accepted the job because I really just missed working with young people. Now I often wonder if returning to the classroom may have been a mistake.
My classroom struggles began almost instantly. As I spoke to my students for the very first time on the first day of school, I couldn’t help but notice how rapidly the sea of expressions before me morphed from casual indifference to restless irritation. Years of experience had taught me that unabated teacher talk loses exponential amounts of gravity for young people as the seconds tick away. But scarcely a minute into my intro, I had already lost almost every one of my 42 students.
It was baffling. Speaking to young people had always been so natural for me. I’ve been told time and again that I had a spark, and teens had always seemed to connect with my exuberance over topics that lent themselves to dialogue or deep inquiry.
But for the first time in forever I felt a disconnect. Surveying the shiftless bodies before me, I sped up my cadence. Predictably, this only made matters worse. Rather than reconnecting, my new students atomized into pockets of chatter. This caused me to make yet another rookie mistake of increasing my speaking volume to compete with the escalating noise. Catching myself, I halted my intro, planted myself firmly in the middle of the classroom, and made steady eye contact with each of my chattering students as I waited for silence. Some students caught the hint and stopped talking. Most didn’t. And some even continued to talk with a neighbor while making eye contact with me. Intentionally or not, some of my students were already testing me.
As the chatter regained momentum, I raised my voice to yet another notch. “Let’s remember: only one person speaks at a time in this class!” But things only got worse. Pockets of chattering students gave way to a wave of loud, unstructured kid talk. And now I was yelling:
“THAT WAY WE CAN HEAR WHAT EVERYONE IS SAYING – AND LEARN FROM EACH OTHER!”
Barely five minutes into the class period and my teacher’s voice was already decimated. More importantly, I had completely lost control. With their unrelenting chatter and refusal to listen, my students were sending a resounding signal that they were not interested in anything I had to say. A fiery sensation flooded my head and belly. Was it shame? Anguish? Having been mothballed in my long-term memory for so long, I had forgotten what the feeling even was. And then it hit me: It was the sting of ineffectiveness.
In the end, 54 minutes had passed without completion of a single activity.
When the bell rang, a throng of kids leaped to their feet and surged toward the door. This was unacceptable. Calmly, firmly, I announced to the fleeing students to return to their seats until dismissed by me and only me. But it was too late. A cluster of students seated near the door had already darted out, and most of my words were swallowed by a flood of squirminess and chatter that cascaded through the exit.
Once all my students had left, I stood in stunned silence, the pain of ineffectuality still fresh and my head now swimming as I tried to make sense of what had transpired.
Still, facts were facts: I had just experienced one magnificent crash-and-burn in a career filled with countless rewarding moments. Having one spectacular failure crammed into a sliver of time probably made the situation seem more dire than it actually was. More than likely, a handful of days would be time enough for us to start building positive rapport (and, thus, the foundation for meaningful learning!) Past experience taught me that an ideal place to launch this process was just outside the physical confines of the classroom.
So each day, during the passing period before my class, I stood perched just outside my door and warmly greeted individual students as they filed in. But these verbal greetings were seldom returned. Instead, on most days, my enthusiasm was mostly met with indifferent, confounded, or just plain long faces. I probably would have felt more at ease had my students countered my greetings with more familiar teenage expressions of annoyance and angst, such as eye-rolls or exaggerated sighs, as they strode passed. What was particularly jarring was the almost uniform lack of response. In most instances, students simply walked passed without making eye contact or muttering a single word. Was it a silent protest for something I said or did? Or were my students simply uninterested in making any sort of connection with me?
There were exceptions. A handful of students, whose presence was far and away the best part of my day, shattered some of these uncomfortable moments with pulses of vitality. Bubbling over with the verve and curiosity, they often preempted my greetings with, “Hey, Dr. Cohen: Guess what?” before launching into a breathless anecdote about a viral video, X-Box game, or Kendrick Lamar B-side that was momentarily turning their worlds upside down. Being an inveterate pop culture nerd, I was only too happy to engage in – and perpetuate – these exchanges. Seemingly impervious to their classmates’ doldrums, these students were a constant reminder of why I wanted to return to teaching so badly in the first place.
But as days turned into weeks, the majority of my students remained inured to my friendly overtures. This resistance often manifested itself in unruliness and defiance during classroom activities. Meanwhile, even those few students who seemed to enjoy being a student of mine often found it difficult and frustrating to persevere through tasks that required added focus or mental effort. The result was a classroom that continually brimmed with the same degree of turbulence that marked the very first day of instruction.
What I didn’t know – or didn’t want to consider – on that first day debacle was that it was no aberration. Regardless of how many hours of purposeful prep time I put in, how deliberate I was about creating time and space within instructional activities for personalized instruction, and how clear and structured my expectations, norms, and procedures were, there would be no short-term panacea to establishing the type of learning environment that made it possible for all of my students to thrive.
My wife, Katie, assured me that my expectations were unrealistically high, especially when accounting for the enormity of the class size and my students’ overall level of need. She maintained that my students were learning and growing, albeit not as quickly as I’d hoped, adding that it was virtually impossible for them not to learn while in my class. A straight-talker and a remarkable teacher in her own right, Katie’s words resonated in a moment of great uncertainty for me. But they were also informed by a past version of my teacher self. As a former colleague, Katie’s recollection of my classes were of ones that crackled with upbeat banter and intense, scholarly discussions.
Unfortunately, these past hallmarks were virtually absent from my current classroom. At any moment, one could glance inside the doorway to find that I was unable to consistently a) create enough tranquility for students to silently read or write for more than 2-3 minutes at a time, b) rally the most reluctant learners into doing classwork, and c) establish episodes of classroom dialogue in which students could share perspectives and co-construct knowledge.
And here was the most frustrating part of all: Despite struggling with some of the foundational elements of literacy, I quickly learned that the intelligence of my students far exceeded any ninth-grade class I had ever taught. They were every bit as bright as they were rambunctious, which meant that it wasn’t unusual for a student to contribute a mind-blowing insight while the bulk of her words were being swallowed whole by a tsunami of cross-talk and unruliness that I was unable to curtail without grinding class to a halt by reminding students of our group norms.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t had difficult classes before – ones that initially teemed with struggling or reluctant learners who challenged much of what I said or did. And yet it had never taken much time for them to see that my class would be well worth their time and effort. Or had it?
Was it possible that I was romanticizing my previous teaching experiences to the point where my current one felt disgracefully inept in comparison?
Jennifer Macon, a close friend, fellow educator, and current coordinator of one of L.A.’s most successful magnet programs, offered another possibility: Had my immersion in the study of classroom learning environments radically altered the expectations that I now had for myself as a teacher? Perhaps knowledge of all the things that must (ostensibly) go right for meaningful learning to occur in a classroom made me hyper-aware of all the things that were going wrong. It might be reasonable, then, to think that I was paying less and less attention to the smaller day-to-day successes that often emerge but that can also get lost amidst the sometimes chaotic, sometimes dispiriting, always demanding experience of teaching in a packed classroom at a struggling school.
Jennifer also raised the possibility that my students, all of whom were either Latino or African American, may have felt uneasy about a white teacher who did not share their geographic, racial, or cultural identity. If this were the case, my devotion to culturally sustaining pedagogy would not be sufficient evidence for my students to conclude that they were in competent hands. For the time being, they would see me as a tourist who could not begin to understand the experiences and challenges that infused their lives.
In all likelihood, Jennifer was right on both points. Armed with more knowledge and experience than ever before, I really had expected to be a more skillful practitioner this time around. As for the second possibility, in all my years of teaching predominantly Latino and Armenian students, racial and cultural differences never seemed to be an obstacle in developing rapport or spurring academic engagement. I’d always held firm to the conviction that, if you showed kids you cared, racial, cultural, and socioeconomic divides would fade into insignificance.
But my new students faced a different reality. It was true that they confronted many of the same challenges as my previous ones. But they did so while building their lives in one of the poorest, most notoriously dangerous neighborhoods in all of Los Angeles County. Moreover, they attended a school that exemplified the intense segregation that is a hallmark of high-poverty schools in the 21st century – and that inevitably cleaves our society into perpetual winners and losers.
And then there was me: a white middle-aged male, a stranger in a position of privilege and authority, and perhaps even a symbol of oppression. More than likely, my kids viewed me as little more than a carpetbagger who did not share any aspect of their day-to-day reality.
In case there was any doubt, this point was driven home in one painful sequence. During a small group activity wherein I checked in with collectives of students to assess progress, I glanced up to see that the activity had unraveled: four students huddled around a game of Candy Crush, two students broke into a shoving match, one student angrily shouted a racial epithet at another from across the room, and several others milled about aimlessly. It was a fairly common sequence of events, and I addressed it in much the same way as I had on numerous other occasions:
First, I positioned myself in the center of the room. Next, I silently raised my hand while waiting for my students to mirror my nonverbal gesture. Most eventually did, but a collective of students refused to partake. I held the gesture and waited, making eye contact with the holdouts who continued to openly defy the gesture.
Finally, one student broke the impasse. Blessed with an inquisitive, thoughtful mind and a charismatic personality, this particular young man also had the propensity to dominate classroom discourse. Consequently, we’d had numerous one-on-one conversations about the importance of making room for other people’s voices or of learning new possibilities from competing points of view. Occasionally, our talks defused his angst over my refusal to let him dominate the floor. Other times, he clearly saw me as a hindrance to his right to verbally express himself.
“Dr. Cohen?” he called out. “Can I tell you something? It’s a little off-topic.”
“Sure,” I said, detecting a wariness in his tone that I’d never heard before. “But let’s wait until everyone’s listening.” I scanned the room; my students were still chattering away.
“I don’t think they’re gonna listen,” he said.
Except, almost instantly, the class grew dead silent. It was as if my students likewise sensed the uncharacteristic tenor in their classmate’s voice. With everyone’s attention piqued, he continued. “Some of us were talking. And the thing is, we like you; we just don’t respect you.”
“Okay,” I said, doing my best to mask the shock of anguish suddenly coursing through me. The room was still as silent as it had ever been. “Thank you for your honesty,” I added. “But can I ask why?”
“You’re not from here,” he said. “You’re not from the ‘hood.”
Another student chimed in. “Yeah. You’re not ghetto.”
The room remained silent, but now all eyes were on me. For the first time in maybe forever, I had their undivided attention. In that moment, I despised all of the research from the past two years of my life whose authors trumpeted findings that were feeling more bogus by the second.
I also wanted to tell my kids that I knew what being poor felt like. I knew what being a latch key kid, having learning disabilities, being bullied, and coming from a fractured and terrorized household felt like. Not so they could pity me, but so they might know – in spite of my current privileged status – that I knew what a distressing childhood felt like. Most of all, I wanted to tell them that I could still be a great teacher for them, in spite of our obvious differences, if they would only give me a chance. But I wasn’t comfortable revealing these things yet – or maybe ever.
Instead, I said: “I understand.”
They waited. For once, they wanted something more from me. So I gave it to them.
I told them that everyone in class had a right to his or her own opinion. But I also added that my job was to be a great teacher, while their job was to be an active, respectful participant in our classroom. We could joke and laugh and enjoy each other’s company, but we also had a lot of work to do. I promised them that they would continue to get the best of me every day for the remainder of the school year. I also made it clear that I could only be a good teacher for them if they were willing to meet me at least part of the way. That meant showing up to class on time, respecting one another, following directions, and completing tasks and projects. I didn’t expect perfection, but I expected effort and decency.
When the bell rang, my students remained seated and silent. It was a first. “Please come to class tomorrow ready to learn,” I announced, adding, as always, “Have a good day. Be safe.”
After class, some of my students wanted to talk. They made it clear to me that they did not share their outspoken classmate’s views. Although the frequent bursts of chaos and noise annoyed and distracted them, they liked me, respected me, and enjoyed being students in my class. In their eyes, it didn’t matter much that I wasn’t raised in South L.A. or any of the surrounding neighborhoods. I thanked them for voicing their feelings and offering words of support, but I was almost as stunned as I had been moments earlier when learning that some students felt the exact opposite.
The upshot was as complicated as it was compelling. In the world in which I now practiced as a teacher, not only did my students possess a wide range of talents and skill, but evidently their views on matters of culture, race, and education diverged as well. With this in mind, I decided to explore some of these issues with my class through discussion and a variety of media. So far, the results have been mixed (mostly due to the challenges I’ve already discussed), but we haven’t stopped trying.
In recent weeks, I’ve observed noticeable positive shifts in attitudes and behaviors among practically all of my students. These days, kids routinely mill around my desk before class to kibitz or to ask about aspects of my life. Some of those students who, months earlier, refused to return my daily greetings now seek me out to show off pictures of their family or pets – or to have me listen to their favorite jam.
These developments in my students’ affect (aka their emotional state) made me wonder whether the literature on learning environments wasn’t so much flawed as it was incomplete. In other words, what if the one component unaccounted for in most – if not all – of the research on the way kids learn in the classroom was also the element that truly enabled student-teacher relationships in distressed communities to flourish? This element of which I speak is, of course, time.
My enthusiasm over the positive affective changes that have emerged in my class is, nevertheless, tempered by our daily struggle to complete a single task or activity within an entire class period. With all of the stops and starts due to keeping distractible kids on track, working individually with language learners, and pumping up those students who often struggle to find enough motivation to as much as pick up a pen, we typically just barely finish the warm-up.
But that’s just it. Now we finish the warm-up. And in all actuality, I’ve tweaked them into hybrid activities that bundle brief segments of speaking, listening, or writing around a small chunk of intentionally high-interest text. Though I fear my students are not learning the breadth of skills needed to plug the achievement gaps that have haunted many of them since Pre-K, we’ve made at least some progress. Stand and Deliver it is not.
But even on days when it feels like my students’ behaviors or habits have regressed all the way back to the first weeks of the school year, I can still make out the tiny strands of growth. Still, regardless of how well or poorly the lesson goes, I think I can honestly say that my students are finally starting to realize how much I care.
About two weeks ago, as I hurried through a crowded hallway en route to a meeting, I heard a familiar voice bellowing my name amidst the throng of students behind me.
“Dr. Cohen! Dr. Cohen!”
I turned around to see one of my students (“We like you; we just don’t respect you.”) emerging from the mass of kids. I had no idea what he wanted to tell me. I waited for him to catch up.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said.
“Nothing,” he replied. “Just hi.”
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