Believing in my class and pushing through obstacles together: Why my students teach me as much as I teach them – Sinita Scott, English teacher at Taft I.T. High School in Cincinnati, Ohio

Sinita Scott

Sinita Scott is an English teacher at Taft I.T. High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. She joined the school in 2012 and she’s passionate about helping her students to use language to be able to express themselves effectively. 

Sinita Scott

Sinita Scott

“…that day it hit me: MY senior class was leaving me… I realised that they had accomplished great things and I wanted them to know that they helped make me a better teacher just as I had helped make them better students of the English language…”

Discovering “the gift” of teaching

When I was a child, either in preschool or kindergarten, I would often be the first person to finish all of my work and I would sit in the classroom, bored and silent. I hated being finished first and not having anyone to talk to and have fun with when we got finished so I started to help my friends complete their work. I suppose my teacher told my mom about it and my mother told me way back then that I was going to be a teacher when I grew up. She said that I had, “the gift.”

Of course, I then said that I was going to do anything but teach! I swore that my mom would not dictate what I would do with my life because I would grow up and be my own person. I said that I was going to be a doctor, a lawyer, and a variety of other professions but as soon as it came time to fill out college applications, I checked “Adolescent Education” for every single school.

Since I have become a teacher, I have had the joy of teaching droves of students, some good, some bad, and a lot in-between. I have had the unique experience of teaching at a type of school known as “Alternative to Suspension or Expulsion”, where I learned to have excellent classroom management and I learned ways to build relationships with students quickly in an attempt to change their behaviour so that they could stay at their home schools (other Cincinnati public schools that they were suspended or expelled from) and not come back to visit us.

I currently work at Taft I.T. High School. This is the school in which I really found myself as a teacher. I am able to be who I am and teach in a way that is most effective for my students; this makes my students happy and excited about learning, even though they complete a lot of work, and allows me to feel fulfilled as a teacher.

The daily life of a teacher

Daily, my life as a teacher is insanely busy. It is always very irritating when people make statements like, They work 7-3 and have weekends and summers off. I want that job! as if that is all there is to teaching. I get to work daily at around 7.30am so that I can prepare things for the arrival of my students. I have to make copies, write lesson plans, have engaging activities that span a variety of learning levels and learning styles, and have supplies, check emails, attend meetings and arrange my desks for various activities all before school starts at 8.30am.

Then teaching happens. I am fortunate to be able to be a pertinent part of the lives of each of my students every day. We have fun in class, we talk and discuss various topics related to our quarterly culminating questions, we read, we write. But I am also here as a mentor. I talk to students who have had a hard night at home but still came to school the next day. I work with students who just broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend, were kicked out of their house by their mother, or who had to stay at the hospital the night before with his / her sick child.

I get involved in the lives of my students and I do whatever I can do to help them … but in the end, we still have to get to work and I still hold them accountable for their own learning.

Sinita-Scott-and-pupilAfter we tackle life, literature, and writing, school is dismissed at 3.30pm for the students and I stay after to tutor, continue listening, or just be a safe place for students who don’t really want to go home for one reason or another. Then, I still have to make sure I took attendance, grade papers, make parent phone calls, attend more meetings, and then go home, often after 6.00pm, and be an awesome mother to my teenaged son. I’m exhausted just thinking about my typical day!

My day changes from day to day because I work with 150 individual human beings who have their own needs, wants and desires. I’m there to try to motivate, encourage, and sometimes provide the push they need to reach their goals, every day.

What my students have taught me

I teach in an urban public school in Cincinnati. We have higher than 90% free and reduced lunch here, we are in the middle of the Over the Rhine neighbourhood of the city, and we historically have a bad reputation as a school (for reasons unbeknownst to me).

I have students who come to my classroom who are very smart and extremely capable but many of them come from bad situations. These students come from homes and have gone through things that I could never imagine experiencing at their age and many of them take it in their stride, working diligently to provide better lives for themselves.

My students are capable of doing the same work that is given at other high schools which are considered of a higher calibre, but they are never given the chance because it is seldom that anyone believes in them. My students often feel that nobody cares if they succeed or not and they feel like the school system has failed them.

When I first started working in environments like this one, I was saddened by the fact that so many students had such hard lives. I wanted to save the entire world when I started; I wanted to move every homeless student into my house (I’ve actually done that before!) and I wanted to give every student everything I could give of myself to make sure that they knew where they were loved.

Sinita-Scott-class-signI eventually realised that although students do need personal attention and sometimes they need help by way of material things, they, above all, need a teacher who is serious about their education and genuinely cares about them.

These students are unbelievably resilient and they deal with things that many people could never deal with as adults. They continue to press their way despite the fact that they are homeless, have been abused, and have experienced or are currently experiencing extremely dramatic things in their lives. My students teach me every day that if you persevere, you can reach your goals no matter what because I see them, and they are doing it right before my eyes.

The highlight of my career so far…

One of the best things that has ever happened to me was when I met the class of 2016 as sophomores during the 2013-2014 school year. I met them my second year at Taft I.T. High School, and they had been informed of my reputation as a teacher. This specific class had excellent parents who were dedicated to their children’s success. Both these students and their parents were exquisite; so exquisite, in fact, that I had to become an even better teacher to keep up with them!

That next year I taught an Advanced Placement class which was a mixture of junior and seniors, which enabled me to teach some of the class of 2016 their junior year, while others in their class stopped by my classroom every day to see me, to get help with their work, or to just hang out.

Once senior year for this class came around, I had moved up to become a senior English teacher and I had this class again. Since I had already taught them, it was like a huge reunion in which they brought a few new friends (newly transferred students) who were also awesome individuals and fitted right in. That year I pushed them to learn more than they had ever learned before and through their continued success, they pushed me to continue to teach them more and to help them delve deeper into their learning.

One day in April I was sitting in my classroom and a student named Nijha’I came to my door and walked into my class, for no real reason, just as he normally did every bell of every day of the school year. “Go to class, Nijha’i!” you could hear echoing down the hallway as he scurried out of the door to his proper class.

For some reason, that day it hit me: MY senior class was leaving me and I would never be able to tell Nijha’I to go to class again. I realised that they had accomplished great things and I wanted them to know that they helped make me a better teacher just as I had helped make them better students of the English language.

As a natural gift giver and writer, it didn’t take long for me to decide that I should buy gifts for all of my 87 seniors and give them personal letters to show them how much they meant to me. Someone suggested that I create a GoFundMe page to help cover the costs because I had talked about this class on Facebook so often that my friends felt like these students were their students too!

I agreed and I exceeded the amount that I needed to raise to buy gifts. I got gifts for each of those seniors and I wrote each of them personalised letters to let them know that I saw them and I knew them, and they will go on to do great things.

Of course, I went over the allotted amount per gift for almost all of the students (…because I love to give great gifts!), but the great people at Crayons to Computers and several teachers at my school and other Cincinnati public schools pitched in and donated gift bags, purchased spray paint, and helped me place each individual gift into gift bags (thanks to my friend Amy for her help here!) so that they could be distributed.

Sinita-Scott-class-of-2016

Sinita’s class of 2016 receiving graduation gifts

I gave the senior gifts on Class Day and the letters at Graduation. Graduation was definitely bittersweet because I was ecstatic that my students were graduating and that they had achieved this goal and were moving on to their next phase in life, but I was saddened by the fact that they were actually leaving me.

I was swarmed by students after they were dismissed from graduation and they vowed to never forget me, often reminding me that I was their “favourite.” This experience has been the highlight of my career, thus far.

Helping student push through the obstacles they face

I personally think that many students feel that no one cares about them. They may come from homes in which their parents love them dearly, but they have to work several jobs to make ends meet and the student feels neglected. They may feel that no one cares because they are foster children or homeless or they live with an “aunt” or “grandmother” who isn’t their biological parent and they feel abandoned.

These students are hurting and they are going through many obstacles and they need love and support on a daily basis.

Thus, I try my best to help push students through the hard times they face. I don’t disregard their feelings or make light of their situations. I hear them out and I let them talk to me and work through their issues as much as I can, but I also push them to keep going.

I often tell students they can’t give up on life. That’s not allowed. Yes, this bad thing happened to you and it is horrible that it happened but we have to keep moving and pressing forward until we overcome these things and meet our goals.

I think this is very important to the students because they realise that someone does care about them and the things they go through, but they also know that this same person cares enough to tell them they cannot give up. They have to keep going. They have to make it. And usually in my many experiences with situations like these, they do.

Learning about gender

In my class, I haven’t personally noticed any large difference in the way in which male and female students tackle academic challenges in English class. If anything, I feel like there have been times when female students are more dominant in my class because we engage in a lot of discussion and we do a lot of writing.

I try to make it a point to let students know that we are all equal in my classroom and that one gender is not superior to the others. Additionally, when I hear girls make statements about science or math class and they say, “I can’t do math, I’m a girl!” I make it a point to let them know that they can do whatever they put their minds to, if they want it bad enough and are willing to work for it.

Interestingly enough, we do a feminist criticism unit when we are reading the book SOLD and we discuss the negative portrayal of women in our society through children’s books, hip-hop music, television and movies.

We discuss whether or not things like the prostitution of women by male pimps would be less prevalent if society didn’t teach our men that they are the dominant sex and that women are there to do their bidding. Then, we discuss how some women are pimps and how some men are prostitutes against their will.

It really challenges the gender stereotypes that many have known their whole lives and it shakes up their worlds a bit. But, in the end, I think that starting with this story in Q1 helps change the perception of the students, both male and female, for the remainder of the school year.

The “aha!” moment

The “aha!” moment is the most rewarding part of teaching to me. I work so hard to get students to “get it” and sometimes I know that the material they are learning is difficult for them to grasp because no one has ever taken the time to teach them to do these things before. I see students break down and cry because its “too hard” and I see them get help from their peers, come after school day after day after day rack their brains and shed tears while trying to understand.

So, after they put forth all of this effort and they finally understand the material … or they finally get a better score on their test … or they finally pass a state test … or they get the college acceptance letter when they thought they would never make it to college. It makes my heart smile.

“It’s not my job to tell you what to think. It’s my job to teach you to think for yourself…”

Sinita-Scott-class-signI hope that I continue to grow more and more each year that I teach. I hope that this year I will be able to teach students more about how our society shapes our thinking about a variety of things (i.e. gender roles and stereotypes, morals, justice) and how we can change our perception and ultimately change our culture … if we work hard enough.

I hope to teach students to search for their own truths and to stand by what they believe, even though others may disagree with them. I always tell my students, “It’s not my job to tell you what to think. It’s my job to teach you to think for yourself…” and I hope that I can teach them to do that this year and every year. I want my students to be informed, upstanding members of society who are well versed in literature and writing. I hope that this year, my students and I will become more of who we are destined to be.

 

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