(I1) Decency to the World: Walking the Walk, A Story From Candy Kean, An Inner City 3rd Grade Teacher

Thank you for sending me Reflection 8: Why We Aren’t Good Students, Why It Matters. It lays s out some profound issues. I want to address just a few of them and while you may already know and understand, I want to be able to tell you from my daily perspective,

Jeff, we are charged with teaching our students how to write. However, many had poor teachers in prior years, or have little or no experience in writing. This is of critical importance. If children cannot express themselves in writing, they simply lose out on chances in the future, whether it’s writing college applications, a letter, or a story.

Second, we are faced with HUMONGOUS challenges at home – from no parents, to one parent, to drugs, to alcohol, to all kinds of violence and God knows what else. I constantly tell my children that learning is a ticket out. But 3rd graders come to me never having done any sustained reading – without interruption for up to 1/2 hour. You think its hard getting a teenager to listen????? Try getting 15 of these students to stay in their seats and read for 20 minutes. IMPOSSIBLE.

Why is this important? Because you need to CONCENTRATE and my students are used to constant interruptions. Even kids with ADDHD can read, but my incoming students can’t read at all. In addition, because home life is so erratic, teachers are additionally charged with the welfare of their students OUTSIDE OF SCHOOL.


I could tell you stories that would make your skin crawl, including this one. My first year in any school, I was an intern, paired with senior teacher who screamed incessantly at her kindergartners all day long.  One student she regularly yelled was a brilliant child  — sweet, calm and quiet. I knew something was wrong at home but couldn’t get it out of him. Then, he started coming in with bruises. I went to the nurse, who contacted DHS. My classroom teacher??? She yelled at me for going to the nurse and said she wouldn’t get involved. I told her I WOULD.

This child’s mom was leaving to get drugs and the kid was being bound and gagged because he complained. The mother, in an effort to save herself, asked me to call if I had any questions. One day, when I failed to call, she came to the school yard and yelled at me: “MISS KEAN, I HAVE FOUR CHILDREN UNDER THE AGE OF 10! WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO??” I looked at her, speechless, and realizing what she just said, added “I didn’t mean it that way.”

Since that day, I have learned that if I do not teach the WHOLE CHILD, my job is a waste of time.

A few weeks ago, one of my kids suddenly stopped functioning. I sat down next to her and asked what was going on. She shook her head and I sat there for a few minutes, until the tears rolled down her cheek.

“It’s just that my mom keeps yelling. I didn’t do anything, but she yells at me. Tells me I took her wallet and her things. And I didn’t do, Miss Kean!”
I paused, and said “Well, when does this happen? When you get home from school?”
“No, in the morning. She be out all night partying with her sister and get up to go to school and she yells at me!”
“Who stays with you? Are you alone?”
“No, the babysitter’s there. She’s nice”
“So mom comes home it’s morning?”
“Does mom walk funny when you see her, sort of stumble?”
“How did you know, Miss Kean? She stumbles and falls all over the place! This morning, she threw up too!”
“Does her voice sound normal?”
“No, she can’t speak right. Like her words are slurry or something.”

OK. So, I’ve stopped teaching to focus on this child. I look around and everyone else is busy doing math or reading. I tell my student not to worry, that everything will be fine, that mom doesn’t mean to be mean – and make a B-line for the phone. Thank God the counselor is NOT busy. She immediately comes to my room. And the child, nervous at first, is more comfortable when her friends run to greet the counselor.

So why in all the world did I just spend all this insane time telling you this?????? First, because there are tons of teachers who could care less, who just don’t want to get involved. Second, because last time I checked, I’m NOT a licensed therapist. Yet I spend a lot of time trying to figure this stuff out. Why? Because if I don’t, teaching becomes impossible.

I chose to teach in an urban environment against the advice of others around me. But, I felt a need to give to the less fortunate. And I’m not complaining.


So while we teach to a test, we are teaching skills the students need. I want them to have every advantage and if that means teaching writing skills to kids who will never fill out college applications, it doesn’t matter. Third graders have to know how to write.

I know this doesn’t address the more meaningful stuff you write about in Radical Decency, but I wish more people knew what I do because I wonder how they would think about teachers if they really knew.

Remember student whose mom was coming home drunk in the morning? She’s AWOL. We’re trying to figure out what happened. Meanwhile, I am dealing with a student whose dad repeatedly punches him in the face; a child who’s neglected by both parents; a boy with serious, SERIOUS depression; four mentally gifted kids (who keep me sane); and a bunch of other stuff.

I’ve written too much and I’m sorry. But I never know what I am going to find each day when I go to school. I only pray that the kids are being fed and taken care of during the time I don’t have them in my charge. Oh, and I hope they are reading and writing, too.