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A Day in the Life of a an Inner-City School Teacher


Before I even open my eyes, I hear my phone buzz with a new text.

“hey do we hv skool 2day?” 

It’s from one of my student advisees. The text amazes me--why would we not have school? Also, I am always hyper-aware of the number of days we have until the next day off, which, in this case, is 4 school days left until break.

“Yes,” I respond.  “Please remember to bring a note from your mom for your absences all last week.”

“Ok thnks.  I hv a headache and Bad Stomach.  Mom wants me to ask you if you think I shld cme to skool 2day.”

Really? I am not the mother here.

I don’t respond. They’ll figure it out.

In between shower and coffee, I remember I need to download a video clip of a play onto my laptop while I’m still at home, since YouTube is blocked at school. This is a play we’re studying in class, and it would be really beneficial to have the students hear and see this famous movie actor they admire playing the lead role.  I wish tickets were less expensive or I’d try to take them to see it, being performed right here in New York City. But there’s no money for that in our budget so a video clip will have to do.  When I tried this yesterday it froze and there went my lesson.

With a pile of fresh worksheets still warm from the copier, I arrive at the classroom where I will teach my first two classes. “You’re late, Miss” is how the group of four students waiting outside the door greet me. Class doesn’t begin until 8:30 and they are supposed to be in the cafeteria, but once again they were released early.  They are four of my best students, but who likes to be called out for being late when you are, in fact, early, and so are they? Good morning to you, too.

I unlock the door and sigh. This room…sucks. Two years ago when I was told I had gotten my own classroom, I hilariously thought that meant I would be teaching in there.  This year, due to “scheduling issues,” I’m teaching in rooms all over the school.  This one is particularly grim: small, windowless, with a noisy air vent above that makes it hard for students to hear. I have 28 students on my roster, and 25 chairs in the room.  If they all show up on the same day, we’re in trouble.

My first class begins to arrive.  I don’t mind so much that there are only 7 students present for the first 25 minutes. If this is it for the whole period, I’ll secretly be okay with that, since these kids are the most well-behaved and engaged.  And miracle of miracles: they all even have something to write with! We open the play to where we left off and volunteers begin to read. I note one student who is emerging as a real natural, the way he reads this role. It’s a tough role for even a seasoned actor, the rhythm of the language, the word choices—but he seems to take to it like a duck to water. I wonder if he recognizes it, too? Should I say something? Or will it make him rebel and never read aloud again? Hmmm.

I try to play the video clip to end the class on an inspired note. It freezes. Once again, I wish teachers had special YouTube privileges; it would be a great tool to have for moments like this.

My second class begins to arrive and immediately lets me know I’ll be working hard for the next 50 minutes. They make their entrance pushing and shoving each other, taking each other’s bags, running around the room, ignoring me. They used to be one of the best groups in this grade, but now we commonly refer to them to as “that formerly good class.” Where things went downhill, I don’t know.

I hand out a quiz. We spent the entire last class reviewing for this test, and yet it seems to take them completely by surprise today. It’s clear that no one has studied. “I think you’ll find you know more than you think you know,” I try to reassure them. 

“I think you’ll find you’re a bad teacher,” quips one student, loud enough for us all to hear, even over the air vent.

While I’m bubbling in my attendance sheets in #2 pencil and waiting for a parent meeting, I try calling the father of the student who was so rude during second period. His is the only contact we have listed. The first number is out of service, but the second number puts me through. Dad tells me his son no longer lives with him, and that he rarely sees him. He gives me Mom’s number. I relay the story again to the student’s mother, who responds, “Yeah, he doesn’t really like plays.”  Upon my pointing out that, regardless of how much he does or doesn’t like a subject, this is not an acceptable way to address a teacher, she begrudgingly agrees to talk with him when he gets home.

That last class went a little better, though they left the room a mess. I’m straightening up the classroom after my class when hunger pangs hit. I’ve forgotten to bring my lunch so I call in my lunch order at the diner on the corner.  Getting my coat on to go pick it up, I get a call from the office. The no-show parent that was supposed to be here at 11:00 has just arrived. I have to decide: eat lunch or meet parent?  Gritting my teeth against the hunger, I head to the office.

I pull a student aside at the end of class to speak privately about something I’ve been noticing in class.  A good student generally, lately she’s been responding to me with the special tone of disdain teenagers usually save for their parents whenever I call on her.  I gently point out that I’ve noticed her tone (you never use the word “attitude” with teenagers; trust me on this) has changed in class, and I wondered if anything was going on that I should know about.  At first, she denies it, but then finally reveals that she’s had some issues with the boy she is seated next to in class. Nothing serious, she claims, but she has heard him making fun of her and doesn’t feel comfortable around him. As we talk about it more, it’s clear how much this has been upsetting her. I agree to change his seat tomorrow, and we develop a signal for her to let me know if it’s happening again.  I also vow to speak to him and his advisor the following day. I encourage her to speak up sooner next time. By the time she leaves, she seems back to herself and even thanks me.

In the hallway I run into the Mr. Natural Actor from first period. I comment how good he is at cold reading, that he has a real knack for acting. “That’s all I’m doing all day, Miss, is ACTING!” he says with a flourish.  I laugh and marvel at how true that is for most of my students.

I’m dying to use the restroom, but I have a staff meeting that I’m now 5 minutes late for, after talking with my student after class. Why didn't anyone tell me bladder management was such a big part of teaching?

Our teacher meeting ends. As I walk out with the vice principal, I use the opportunity to let him know how badly it’s going in the Air Vent room and wonder if he might look again to see if there are any other possibilities for that class. “I’ll check,” he says, which is code for “deal with it.”

The subway took forever getting me home.  I have a ton of grading to do, but dealing with students has drained me, and I desperately need a nap.

My phone wakes me out of a sound sleep. It’s Rude Student’s mother. “My son is denying that anything even happened in class this morning, I just wanted to let you know.”

I ask if he admits he was removed from the class. She says he does.

“So what does he say is the reason he was removed from class?” I ask. 

Silence.  That’s right.

Finally his mother speaks. “You’ll have an apology from him tomorrow morning.”

Finally finished grading quizzes and classwork. Now I just have to print out progress reports so I can hand them out tomorrow, with enough time to make up work before the break. I long for a real meal with my husband. At the dining table, not on the couch, surrounded by papers.

In bed before midnight! I get a page and a half into my book before my eyelids win the battle. As I reach to turn off the light I notice a text. It’s from one of my other advisees:  “Wassup miss can I get my code thingy so I can chek my grades?”

I turn off the light, ready to put another day to bed.

Anonymous is an English Language Arts teacher in New York City.