How to decide between teaching in the city or the suburbs

Let’s assume you are offered two positions that pay the same and offer the same schedule, but one is urban and one is suburban. How do you decide?

When you applied for graduate school, you told them you wanted to challenge the inner city students to meet their full potential. You said that standards and expectations should not be lowered for this group and that you were ready to take on the challenge. Meanwhile, you imagined yourself in a clean, shiny classroom with students who don’t bring knives to school or smell like pot during first period.

Both extremes present completely different challenges and rewards. And as you read further, remember that I am speaking in extremes. Many schools cater to students on both ends of the socio-economic spectrum simultaneously.

The urban school

Working with the stereotypical “inner city” kids can be a fight against a culture that doesn’t always value education.

Students playing basketball behind a chain linked fence.

You might end up with a room full of kids who don’t care about the periodic table because they have to go to work after school to support their family (possibly even their own children) and they’d sure as hell rather be making a dollar scooping fries at McDonald’s than studying Shakespeare at school and “wasting their time.”

McDonald’s equals money, while school, in this moment (which is, according to Ruby Payne and her framework of understanding poverty, the only moment they’re able to focus on) means nothing. Shakespeare is just a dead guy talking in a language they don’t understand (PS it’s English). A truly amazing teacher might get them to enjoy Shakespeare and see how he wasn’t that much different from them (he clearly liked a good dirty joke), but that would be a trophy class accomplishment and difficult to maintain day after day. Not impossible, but physically and emotionally exhausting.

School can be an uphill battle for these students starting in kindergarten.

Girl staring out a classroom window

Many of these “at risk” students live with elderly grandparents or in group homes because Mom’s dead and Dad’s in jail or Mom left and Dad can’t deal, etc. The children of poverty often aren’t taught the importance of education before they hit the school systems and by the time they reach kindergarten, educators are already fighting an uphill battle.

Those kids so often don’t understand that education is their way out because they don’t think there is a way out and many don’t even want out. It wouldn’t be cool to want out and it most certainly would not be cool to look smart. We have an epidemic of highly intelligent minority students holding themselves back because they don’t want to appear smart or let it show that they care, because that would ostracize them from their community.

Some kids of difficult circumstances self-medicate with drugs and/or alcohol and can be extremely volatile.  Tread carefully. Don’t be surprised when a, “please put your cell phone away,” is met with, “You have no F-ing right to tell me what to do. You ain’t my momma. I ain’t putting nothing away. F-you.”

You might think a call to the parent would help straighten things out. Let’s say you’re lucky enough to get a working phone number and a parent who picks up.  You explain the situation with the cell phone policy and how you asked the student nicely to put the phone away, but the parent responds: “You have no right; my child ain’t putting nothing away. F-you.” The apple doesn’t fall far. What do you do now? The kid will rejoice if you write them up and they get in school suspension or, the new euphemism, in school behavioral intervention. Even better if they get out of school suspension. That means they don’t have to be in school. They’re pumped about that.

I’m not saying that it is impossible to get through to these kids.

Students doing their work

It is not impossible. In fact, it is completely possible. You surely won’t get through to all of them, but it is damn rewarding if you get through to even a couple! You can really change a child’s life in this situation. You can teach them not only science, or history, or math, but that they have self-worth, that they have something to give to the world, and that someone cares about them and wants to help them give it. That’s you.

By just being there every day in class you become the most stable and predictable thing in some of their lives and they crave that.

When that moment happens and you have a break through it’s all worth it. Sadly, these tough schools burn through teachers quickly. The triumphs are often dwarfed by the tribulations. Not to mention, struggling schools have the state breathing down their necks about low test scores and achievement gaps. That then trickles down to teachers from administrators and department chairs. It is not easy trying to get a classroom full of kids who don’t value education and are reading several years below grade level to pass an on-grade-level standardized test. (Great resource for more info on urban schools’ struggles).

I certainly don’t have the answers.

I wish I did, but my advice is to know what you’re getting into in an “inner city” or “rough” school. Some teachers thrive in these situations. Maybe you’re one of them. If you are, by all means get out there and make a difference ASAP. Even consider joining Teach for America. They will place you in a high-need school before you can snap your fingers. In addition, as mentioned before, I’m speaking in extremes. Some students of poverty have two loving parents at home who value education and will work with you to support their child’s education.

The suburbs

Ariel view of the suburbs

The “suburban,” generally more upper/middle class kids, present a totally different set of difficulties and rewards. Sure, those inner city kids feel entitled. They feel like the world is against them and due to that they should be able to do whatever they want, but “suburban kids” feel entitled too. Especially the rich ones. Mommy and Daddy have catered to them for years and they expect you to do the same.  What do you do when half of the kids in your honors class shouldn’t be there, but are because their parents complained to the school until they were moved up?

What do you do as a first year teacher when the kids expect you to know everything? Oh, and they will expect you to know everything. Don’t make a spelling mistake on your syllabus; a student, or worse, a parent will call you on it.

These kids need you, but not in the same ways the “inner city” kids do.

Teaching the “inner city” kids is physically and emotionally exhausting because you constantly have to be “on” each and every one of them all the time. By “on” I mean you have to be watching every move. Watching to make sure they’re doing their work. Calling them out when they’re texting or painting their nails in class. Constantly refocusing them on the task at hand. You have to make sure the tension between those two girls in the back doesn’t erupt into a fight and you actually have to think about teaching them something, too.

Teaching the “suburban” kids is physically and emotionally exhausting because they need constant stimulation and attention, but in a different way. You have to be on top of your game when it comes to your content and lessons. If you’re lazy, they will call you on it. They know what differentiation means and they expect you to do it. They expect you to have read all eleven of the summer reading book options and be able to talk about them even though each of them only had to read one.

And don’t forget that not only are you working for the kids, but with this group, you’re working just as much for the parents. They want regular updates about what is going on in the classroom. They want to know why Shakespeare isn’t covered until second semester and why the Russian Revolution isn’t taught in history at the same time Animal Farm is taught in English. They want to know why little Johnny has a B. B’s are not acceptable. Can you offer little Johnny some extra credit? Can you stay after school and before school and during lunch to tutor little Johnny?

There are plenty of rewards for teaching these students as well.

Emply classroom

Teaching these students gives you the opportunity to focus on learning instead of classroom management (most of the time). It gives you the opportunity to have in depth class discussions.  It gives you the chance to have debates without the fear of fists being thrown. You really get to mold their young lives and guide them towards a fulfilling life and career because they are eager for it.

Obviously, I’ve made assumptions and generalizations here.

I’ve assumed that the “inner city” kids are the lower economic group and also the lower achieving group and that the “suburban” kids are the higher economic group and also the higher achieving group. This is an assumption that does not always hold true, but we must face the fact that, in America, our inner city schools generally serve the lower socio-economic kids and are the schools that struggle most with discipline and achievement.

Maybe you don’t believe that schools are really like this (and not all are), but my brutal honesty is here to serve a purpose.

Arial photo of suburbs of Canada
Canadian suburb

Choose the type of setting that is best for you because your happiness and contentment will lead to you being a better teacher. The ultimate goal is to have the best teachers in all the schools in our country, inner city, suburban, and everything in between. In order to be a kickass teacher you need to be in the setting that is right for you.

What I did when I had to make the choice between two offers.

I was once offered two different positions: one school with an administration I really liked (friendly and effective) and a difficult student population and one with a difficult (not friendly, but effective) administration and an easier population.

I went with the tougher administration, but students that I thought I would enjoy more and I’ve never regretted that decision—even when the Principal made me cry when I told her I was pregnant. She was upset because my maternity leave would fall during standardized testing and subs can’t administer the test. In our conversation, she referred to my pregnancy as “very problematic.”

She ran a tight ship though. I can’t say she was a bad principal, in fact quite the opposite. She just wasn’t so much a people person. Teachers often left her office in tears. That didn’t matter to me though. Administrators are in your room a few times a year for observations.

You are in there with the kids all day every day. That is why I chose the student population I preferred rather than the administration I preferred.

Need some good reading material? Check out these posts:

I recommend reading Brené Brown
Recommended reading for future/new teachers

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A Teacher's Guide

I am a National Board Certified educator currently teaching in Virginia. I have taught the following: English 9, 10, 11, and 12 (on academic, collaborative, and honors levels); Dual Enrollment English; Mass Communications, Yearbook, Newspaper, and Communications Technology. I have experience in five different school systems, four in Virginia and one in Maryland. I served as my school’s 2019 Teacher of the Year and was a top five finalist for the Teacher of the Year for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. I am passionate about recruiting and retaining quality educators in our public schools. Let me help you find your path to changing lives through teaching!

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