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Tested

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The kids 'round there live like shadows, Always quiet, holding hands. From the churches to the jails, All is silence in the world;

As we take our stand, Down in Jungleland.

The midnight gangs assembled at their rendezvous for the night ... 'neath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light,

There’s an opera on the Turnpike, There's a ballet being fought out in the alley; Until the local cops, Cherry-Tops, rips this holy night. - Bruce Springsteen

My first year of teaching at an alternative school for felons, I was drinking a beer and decompressing after school when I realized how badly I was hurting. I had just been playing three-on-three basketball; but all my opponents had been abused as children. Every time I had touched the ball, the fouls had been doubly hard. My students were testing whether I would stick it out, and also whether I was "for real." Would I do what other adults had done and strike back in anger?

Teaching new freshmen, I could often tell who would be a discipline problem by watching the other students. The kids’ eyes were on their friends who would inevitably challenge me. They would all be testing whether I could manage the class, but they were also watching something else. Would I be fair? Students want teachers to take control, but not in an abusive manner.

In one sense, teachers should be expected to earn the respect of students and to demonstrate that they are tough but caring. But in urban secondary schools, adults have allowed teens to set the rules of engagement. As young teachers learn their craft, they also have to live up to the code of the streets.

I don't know the answer, but too many of our best teachers are overly proud of their "street cred," putting down colleagues who don’t have the right mix of street smarts and compassion. If we were really so awesome, adults would take control of the school and proclaim, "the Street stops here." If we were really the personifications of a Hollywood teacher/hero, we would create an environment that was safe for all teachers - and for all students. When educators allow the street code of "Respect" to dominate within our schools to the point where most teachers struggle to prove themselves, what are we doing to the majority of the kids? When we allow an environment where only the strongest and most resourceful adults survive, how can students feel safe enough to get an education? - John Thompson

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