Durham News: Opinion

Ex-broadcaster Pam Saulsby on life as a substitute teacher

Pam Saulsby
Pam Saulsby

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunities of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms.”

Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v. Board of Education (1954)

If I had a magic wand there would be fewer black and brown faces in classrooms reserved for those with behavior problems and emotional disorders.

I am a substitute teacher in the Wake County public school system, at least for now.

I’ve only been at it for six months or so, but the impression will last a lifetime. It’s been, in a word, disturbing.

The work is demanding, with its urgency, frayed nerves, and hopscotching from one school to another. But what continues to strike me as I navigate the hallways is the insolent behavior of many students of color. They’re nearly always black or brown young men disrespecting themselves and others with little regard for the consequences.

There is an alphabet soup of curriculum courses created for the troublesome. They’re separate from the general classes, and their primary purpose is not to educate, but to control and contain. They carry names such as Curriculum Assistance, Cross Curriculum Resources, In School Suspension, and Alternative Learning to name a few. The students assigned to these classes are almost all black or brown and male.

I remember one occasion when I was cautioned repeatedly to be on alert for my fourth block math class. When class time rolled around I learned why. The students came into the classroom loud and unhinged, cursing, playing music, with “N-word” this, and “N-word” that. It’s an image I will not soon forget.

And when I asked another educator about the completion of assignments, the use of cell phones, and how to handle class work he told me it would be enough if I could just keep them in the classroom. Well, he was right. Several students asked for bathroom passes or permission to get a drink of water and never returned.

And sometimes educators leave me notes with a watch list of problem students. I match names to pictures on seating charts, and 10 times out of 10 they are black or brown young men.

In the beginning I tried to manage their behavior as students walked around, or slept, or wouldn’t stop talking. I was sending them to the office right and left for misconduct. Some even recorded my exchanges with students who refused to comply.

Then I stopped.

I accepted the reality that students, and particularly these students, will test a “guest teacher.”

So I shifted my focus to helping those who wanted my help. If I could hear, “Thank you Miss Saulsby, here you go. I finished my assignment,” my work was done. I admit I lowered my expectations dramatically, but that was reality.

It disappoints me, saddens me, even angers me when I think about the paths these young lives will take in life. Some obstacles are a given for them, and others they create themselves.

But solutions are complicated. I get that. I understand the crushing influence poverty, fractured homes, and streets riddled with crime and violence have on young people, and it begs the question, must we lose yet another generation of young black men?

I decided I needed some perspective from someone who knows the schools and the streets where these young men are growing up. So I talked with Minister Paul Scott. We met at the intersection of Morehead Avenue and Moreland Street on Durham’s west side.

He’s been at that corner for 10 years, handing out books on black history to anyone who’s interested. It might seem insignificant, but the way Minister Paul sees it, if that simple act makes just one young man shift his thinking then he has achieved what he set out to do. He wants them to think.

Minister Paul is soft spoken but direct, and his conviction is palpable. He told me he doesn’t entertain notions of losing a generation of young black men and he believes “a soul is never beyond redemption.”

As I prepared to leave, Minister Scott reminded me of a phrase from an old African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child. It has become a cliché, but he’s right.

I’ve taken everything he said to heart and I now stand outside my door before class, smiling and shaking young men’s hands, looking them straight in the eye and saying “Good Morning.” For me, that’s a new start.

You can contact Pam at pamsaulsby@gmail, on her website at pamsaulsby.com and follow her on Twitter @pamsaulsby.