Finding Ninee » Sharing our parenting and special needs stories with heart and humor.

Our Land – For my students, with love and pencils


Today’s Our Land Series post is brought to you by the fabulous Jean H. from Mama, Schmama. Jean’s gorgeous writing is full of light and wisdom. Each time that I visit her pages, I am either smiling, laughing, nodding my head in agreement, or “awwww-ing” over her touching and heart-filled outlook at life and parenthood. Seriously – she’s amazing.  Jean’s experiences as a teacher are something that she rarely writes about on her blog, which makes her words here today even more special to me. I’m honored to share them with you.

Our Land – For my Students, with Love and Pencils

“Just don’t go into that neighborhood.”

I taught students who were at-risk and living in poverty, from that neighborhood. Most of their families lived in generational poverty and were very much accustomed to working with a society that was not striving to harvest the hope of inclusion- they knew people avoided their community.  Our classroom community was affected by all the challenges that come with poverty and prejudice daily.

“You, like, go to school in the ghetto. Aren’t you afraid of getting shot?”

“Their parents are just looking for a handout.”

On a better day and with a strong mindset, it was infuriating.  On a bad day, it felt soul-crushing. Poverty is cruel enough without prejudice heaped on top.

I did not experience that life as a child, and when I met my students and their families at the beginning of the year, many of them made it clear that my privilege was written on my forehead.

“You can’t handle my Briyana.”

“What do YOU know?”

Maybe it’s ironic that a group of people so frequently stereotyped would, in turn, stereotype others, but knowing that wasn’t going to help me in the classroom. I spent a lot of my time proving myself to my students and their families instead.  I wanted to show them that I hadn’t lived their challenges but I sure as hell was going to work with them where they were at currently.  I would listen without judgment.  I would see past their struggles to find the child.  They deserved that much.

If charity was necessary, I did it modestly and privately.  I handed over pencils and new book bags.  I made end-of-the-day calls home to parents to say their child didn’t need to bring in the $5 for the field trip (Skip a trip to Starbucks or deny a child his first chance to see a major US city, less than an hour away?). If anger was present, I sought common ground and understanding.  I didn’t sugarcoat the situation, nor was I totally immune to becoming jaded.

books jeanclassroom jean

At some point during the year, students and parents would declare “Mrs. H don’t play” or “You’re not racist” or “You don’t care if your students are poor, you teach everybody.”  I don’t expect my husband to compliment me on my lack of racism but in the situation, they were signs of success.  It let me know that my students and parents knew I cared enough to meet them on their journey, without judgment, with the belief that their challenges did not define them.  They deserved to know that someone cared and that I could handle Briyana, dammit.

Thank you for being my teacher

Not all students or parents saw that, though, and sometimes I just wasn’t good at finding a way to show I cared.

I taught Tara and, a few years later, her younger sister, Nevaeh.  Nevaeh and Tara’s father went to prison which created a financial crisis for the family.  By the time Nevaeh entered my classroom, she had become impenetrable.  She was skilled at causing strife and chaos and she liked it.

I did not reach her and neither did the rest of her teachers in elementary school.

Right now, Nevaeh is living in your community. You stand in line behind her at the grocery store and pass her on the sidewalk.  Every interaction you have with her is your chance to prove that people are kind and “not racist.”

So, how will you do it?

Here’s my suggestion:

Play to the pencils and the preservation of dignity that a privately gifted book bag can bring.  Be thoughtful and respond appropriately during the many chances you will have to change the mind of someone suffering under the stress and prejudice of poverty.

Smile.  Make eye contact.  Attempt understanding while withholding judgment.  Humor. Humor. Humor.  Be fearless without bravado.  Meet that person where they are right now.  And because sometimes grand gestures are necessary, do them with the respect for the needs of pride and dignity of the recipient.  Understand your work could very well go unappreciated or even noticed.  Know that it takes you and the decisions of many others to prove that our society cares.

Be confident that you can help.  You are equipped with all you need.

Our Land is a place where people are accepted no matter the challenges they face. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have not experienced those challenges are capable of creating that world.  It is our responsibility to take that first step.  Now.

Jen H Sunshine Hat I told you guys that Jean’s words would amaze you. Be sure to check out her wonderful blog, Mama, Schmama. Here’s a bit more about Jean:

Jean is a former teacher who blogs during increasingly fleeting nap-times and aspires to be an Instagram addict.  When she’s not busy worrying, she’s raising her two children and wondering what her former students are doing.  Jean wishes for third-person bio blurbs to fall out of fashion and, of course, world peace.



  • Rachel - Well, Jean. Of course, I can relate to every bit of this, having also been a teacher of kids who came from poverty. You summed up every perspective, every myriad emotion — that sense of elation when you connect with a child, the sense of relief when you find common ground with a parent, the heartbreak when you are helpless to reach a child. I feel that my years as a teacher were some of the hardest I’ve ever spent, but by far some of the most valuable. I carry the lessons with me every day. Thank you so much for imparting those lessons here! So important! I think those kids were damn lucky to have you as their teacher!February 5, 2014 – 9:10 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - Rachel- and you know my teacher heart feels big knowing you could relate. Your kids were lucky too.February 5, 2014 – 10:20 amReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - “I carry my lessons with me every day.” I love that. And I am so thankful that Jean shared her words here today!February 6, 2014 – 12:12 amReplyCancel

  • Katia - I am struck by how wise you are (despite already knowing that). These two sentences encapsulate you in their wisdom and sensitivity: Meet that person where they are right now. And because sometimes grand gestures are necessary, do them with the respect for the needs of pride and dignity of the recipient.

    Amazing post and once again hat’s off to Kristi for making this one of the most inspiring platforms on the internet.February 5, 2014 – 9:35 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - Hats off to Kristi, indeed. Rare is a writer who can swing from silly to profound with such intelligence and heart as she can.February 5, 2014 – 10:21 amReplyCancel

    • Kristi Campbell - Jean is SO WISE. I love that she said to meet the person where they are now, too. Pride is big. And hats off to both of you for contributing to our land. I’m so happy and honored to share your voices.February 6, 2014 – 12:19 amReplyCancel

  • [email protected] - What a great story. It’s a ironic that just this morning I sent an email to a friend who works in an alternative school about interest in a Creative Writing workshop. I’m not much of a teacher but I love writing and know its power to help those on the outside express feelings.February 5, 2014 – 9:56 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - Absolutely, Jamie. My classroom community always had lots of writing. Many of my students found power in their writing.February 5, 2014 – 10:24 amReplyCancel

  • Jhanis - Beautiful words which I hope will penetrate many a heart. How easy is it to be kind? As easy as it is to be cruel. Only that your heart overflows with joy with the latter.February 5, 2014 – 10:14 amReplyCancel

    • Jhanis - Darn it, my keyboard is drunk. I meant with the first one, not the latter. Gaaah!February 5, 2014 – 10:17 amReplyCancel

      • Jean - I always confuse myself with “former” and “latter.” BUT I got what you meant!!! It also takes more bravery to be kind, in my opinion. I need to remember that more often 🙂February 5, 2014 – 10:26 amReplyCancel

  • Deb @ Urban Moo Cow - Meeting people where they are … goes for everyone, doesn’t it? How often we forget. I admire your courage so much. I’m sure it would have been just as easy to avoid “that neighborhood” and teach elsewhere. So many very good people do so, but it takes a special someone to immerse herself in the difficult, sticky quagmire that is urban poverty. Brava.February 5, 2014 – 10:22 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - Exactly, Deb! I do believe that goes for everyone. It just seems that is forgotten when people interact with those who are “other” I grew up in the community in which I taught. They were my classmates and friends. When I decided to teach, it just seemed natural that’s where I would do it- so, less courage on the part of this teacher, but I’m fine with that. 🙂February 5, 2014 – 10:30 amReplyCancel

  • Sarah | LeftBrainBuddha - My favorite part of this is about smiling and making eye contact. That person to person connection is at the heart of teaching – children are not going to work for a teacher that doesn’t care about them or care about building a relationship. This is such a great essay – I work in one of the most wealthy/privileged districts in our state, so it is so fascinating to hear these stories and know that amazing teachers are everywhere 🙂February 5, 2014 – 10:51 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - Right? When I think of all my coworkers, I remember many people who went above and beyond where I did. It was inspiring to see and a little heartbreaking when I thought of how much people put-down the profession.February 5, 2014 – 11:17 amReplyCancel

  • Dana - “Be confident that you can help. You are equipped with all you need.” If only everyone would believe that, Jean. There are many reasons why people don’t live in Our Land, and one is that they just don’t think they can make a difference. But they can, and you’ve shown us how. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your wisdom, my friend.February 5, 2014 – 11:04 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - I think it’s not too hard just to smile and make eye contact but then again, sometimes it is super hard to do that. Thank you for reading it, Dana!February 5, 2014 – 11:20 amReplyCancel

  • Michelle Liew - I was a teacher of kids from the neighborhood too….and how they had to deal with bias. I can completely relate, Jean. And am too surprised that they contribute to the bias with bias of their own.February 5, 2014 – 11:13 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - It’s understandable though, right? When that’s their leading example, what else would they do? We spent a lot of time in the classroom working on showing kindness towards others.February 5, 2014 – 11:23 amReplyCancel

  • Jennifer | The Deliberate Mom - Wow, Jean never fails to blow my mind.

    {You stand in line behind her at the grocery store and pass her on the sidewalk. Every interaction you have with her is your chance to prove that people are kind and “not racist.”}

    Always inspiring and ever insightful.

    Absolutely lovely.
    xoxoFebruary 5, 2014 – 11:23 amReplyCancel

  • Jean - As you inspire me, Jennifer! Thanks for reading.February 5, 2014 – 11:24 amReplyCancel

  • donofalltrades - There’s such an understandable undercurrent of distrust in the people who live in that part of town that it’s hard to break through all the BS that you have to about race and privilege and motives so you can get to the task at hand, namely, teaching.

    I deal with many of these people at their worst, so I have to remind myself that there are good people in this part of town and to have an open mind. It’s not always easy. God bless the teachers though, no matter what part of town they teach in!February 5, 2014 – 11:25 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - Yes.Mistrust. Exactly. I’m sure you’ve experienced the value in staying in one community and how your reputation gets a chance to build so it makes it a little easier, part of the time. When I left last year that caused more guilt than anything else, it still does, because so many people leave and break the trust. And I think I know where you work (my friend is a teacher there)and I should be the one saying God bless you.February 5, 2014 – 3:17 pmReplyCancel

  • Tamara - Yes, Jean’s words always amaze me – love hearing this perspective and hearing about her work. Well..your work, Jean, if you’re reading this. No need to talk about you in the third person!
    I come from a family of teachers. It’s in their minds and hearts. It’s a gift. I wasn’t born with that gift so I’m in awe of every perspective of it.February 5, 2014 – 12:09 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - Tamara, at my grandpa’s wake, my uncle got up and spoke about how his dedication to working with kids seeped into the lives of his children and grandchildren. He pointed out how many coaches, teachers, counselors, etc. were in our family.When I grew up, I didn’t want anything to do with teaching but then I did fall in love with it.I like how teachers seem to create more teachers.February 5, 2014 – 3:22 pmReplyCancel

  • Sarah - I am one of the people who can relate to this post. I taught children of poverty only briefly, and when I did I tried to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on a daily basis. But the real hero in our family is my husband, whose life balling is education for the underprivileged. I do believe it is a calling and some people are naturally gifted for this profession. Like him. Or you.
    I really loved the end of you post. So teacherly to move from the abstract to the concrete–here is what you can do now, today. And I agree that treating everyone with more respect will move us forward to a positive, supportive community.February 5, 2014 – 12:21 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - And the profession sorely needs more men doing what your husband does.I never thought of teaching underprivileged kids as my calling, like he does, it just happened to be the kids who lived in my community and so that’s who I taught. I wonder if I would have done so if I grew up somewhere else.February 5, 2014 – 3:25 pmReplyCancel

  • Stephanie @ Mommy, for Real. - Oh, Jean. You are so wise and gifted, both as a parent and as a teacher. I love your honesty and humor combined with legitimately helpful practical advice. You are inspiring without being preachy or full of yourself. Those whose lives you have touched are better for it, without a doubt. Including me. 🙂February 5, 2014 – 12:59 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - I was, ahem, lucky enough to work with a group of teachers and a principal who never ever let anything go to our head. And then, there’s always been the educator-loving politicians who harp on how we live a Donald Trump lifestyle on our extravagant salaries while ruining America’s future… 🙂February 5, 2014 – 3:28 pmReplyCancel

  • Mike - This was absolutely beautiful, Jean. Having grown up around 5 parents/step parents who were teachers I to this day have an admiration and love for those that choose that career field. One that is highly underpaid and further more so atrociously under appreciated. I like what you said, “I would listen without judgment.” The smiles and warmth you have brought to some many children will forever be imprinted in their minds and hearts forever! Thank you so much for sharing her with us, Kristi 🙂February 5, 2014 – 1:29 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - Thank you so much, Mike! My mom was an educator and I always said teachers had the most important job in the country, until I became one and then it felt a little presumptuous to say that about myself 🙂February 5, 2014 – 3:30 pmReplyCancel

  • thedoseofreality - Sobbing. This is simply amazing in every way. Thank you for sharing this story today. I totally needed to read it.-AshleyFebruary 5, 2014 – 1:38 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - Ashley, this is two posts in a row I think where I made you cry! I promise to be frivolous and full of humor the next time you visit 🙂February 5, 2014 – 3:33 pmReplyCancel

  • Muses from the deep - Sharing here too!February 5, 2014 – 4:13 pmReplyCancel

  • Dawn White Daum - Sooooo good Jean! I loved the story you told and the way you wrapped it all in truth and honor and humor. Definitely a vulnerable piece but a beautiful one because of that. The world needs more people, and especially teachers, to see others the way you do. Sharing with my FB peeps. I know they’ll love it.

    “Be fearless without bravado. Meet that person where they are right now.” Made me want to stand up and clap!February 5, 2014 – 6:47 pmReplyCancel

  • Sarah Almond - Not only do I love this post, I love that picture of you! 😀February 5, 2014 – 10:20 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - Well, of course-the sun looks good on everybody. And thank you!February 5, 2014 – 10:24 pmReplyCancel

  • Kathy at kissing the frog - Inspiring. I taught in a low-income school for 8 years. It’s tough, often unnoticed and unrewarded work. But, the kids who stand out are burned in your heart forever. Thanks for sharing here!February 5, 2014 – 10:28 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - Kathy, they do. I’ve only been out since last June and I miss it. The teaching, the challenges (oddly enough), and the kids. I kept relics from year to year of certain kids as reminders for why I was there. I still have a few in my little closet office now.February 6, 2014 – 9:21 pmReplyCancel

  • JenKehl - My Skewed View - This really is so thoughtful and important Jean, thank you. I see it as a cycle that also doesn’t break easily as generations pass it on – on both sides.
    My MIL is guilty of using the statement those “insert nationality here”, but she has grown up in a neighborhood her whole life that went from middle-class to impoverished in the last 80 years. And trust me, in her neck of the woods, she’s right – she’s not safe. So breaking the cycle is really hard.
    But it’s still worth it to try.
    And so the few times I’m in Waukegan, I face those thinly veiled hostile stares with a smile. Sometimes it’s enough to make a crack in the ice, other times I leave with my heart pounding.
    But it’s true what you say. You gotta try.February 6, 2014 – 2:31 amReplyCancel

    • Jean - But it should be easier to start breaking that cycle with children. It sickened me to see full grown adults looking at my seven year old children like they were going to jump them when we were on field trips. Seven year olds! And my kids behaved. Just imagining what a child’s life and worldview would be like after being on the receiving end of looks like that as young as seven…February 6, 2014 – 9:24 pmReplyCancel

  • Chris Carter - Lovely post Jean. I spent over 20 years as a therapist in residential and in-patient Psyh… I know all too well about the struggle and the strife of the poverty and crime and hopelessness and quite frankly help-less-ness of countless people.

    I love your perspective and your precious serving ways…those kids were damn lucky to have you.

    On a funny not- I JUST saw you on bloglovin’ while I was looking for another blog- seemed like you were someone may know and if not I wanted to know, so I started following you!!

    And HERE you ARE? Love when that happens!! 🙂February 6, 2014 – 5:46 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - I just found you all over the place, we are now following each other! The blogging community can have “small world” moments occasionally and I like that. Would it be corny to say I’m the luckier one to have had them in my class? Yes. Totally corny. A lot true.February 6, 2014 – 9:48 pmReplyCancel

  • Lady Lilith - It is really nice to see that there are good teachers. They are hard to come by. Her students are very fortunate.February 6, 2014 – 9:21 pmReplyCancel

    • Jean - Thank you for saying that! I have worked with many good teachers, principals, and administrators. They served as daily inspiration to me.February 6, 2014 – 9:54 pmReplyCancel

  • Out One Ear - Linda Atwell - another amazing guest post. I’m running out of unique words to describe all these awesome people. We need more teachers like her. (My husband was one too. He has so much compassion for kids.)

    P.S. I’m for world peace too. 🙂February 10, 2014 – 2:15 amReplyCancel

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