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Jeremy Robinson '04: Standing Against Despair

by Howard W. Hewitt
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Three security guards and a dean of students patrol the hallways outside of Jeremy Robinson’s Chicago classroom. Two police cars block traffic outside the school building, while five officers mill about to keep order among students.
Michael, a heavyset 18-year-old, finds his desk inside. More white T-shirt-clad African-American teens saunter in. They giggle and socialize as young people do, but never far from their minds are the tough streets outside and the sometimes dangerous hallways of William R. Harper High School.
"Look at the faces of these students and you see sadness and fatigue. They battle every day harder than most of us have had to battle in our lives," Robinson says. "What’s nice about teaching here, though, are the good days. When you have a relationship with students, some days you get to see them lighten up and enjoy themselves."
Michael is repeating freshman English for the fourth time, and this appearance is his first in weeks. He and a petite and pretty freshman, Shaquita, are attending Robinson’s class today because Robinson has to turn in grades the next afternoon. The two hoped they would pass for just showing up.
Robinson is in his second year in the Teach For America program at Harper, an under-performing school that has repeatedly faced academic warnings and challenges.
Teach For America recruits outstanding college graduates, regardless of their college major, to commit to two years of teaching in urban or rural public schools like Harper. Teach For America leaders hope their teachers will become leaders in promoting better and equal public education across America. But the only thing equal at Harper is despair.
The tough Englewood neighborhood where Harper sits once led the city in homicides. The businesses along 63rd Street are boarded up, bars over windows, and all show the pale grayness of economic abandonment.
Ninety-nine percent of Harper’s students are African-American; the other one percent is Hispanic.
Just more than 20 students filed into the classroom this period. There should have been more.
"Of that class, 50 percent are failing," Robinson says. "But of the students failing, 40 percent are failing because of truancy. They just don’t come to school."

IF GETTING TO SCHOOL ISN’T EASY for these students, staying is even tougher. In the hallways, teens bump into each other, exchanging glances or stares. There is an undercurrent of anger here.
Just outside Robinson’s door, an assistant principal moves quickly to separate two girls fighting.
During a lunch hour tour, Robinson offers a walk through the building but becomes edgy when nearing the cafeteria. Even from that distance, the eating area is chaotic— teenagers shouting, teachers trying to maintain order. Jeremy pauses and decides against going in.
"I’m young and white," he says, as if he’s been given a hard time there before. "I’m not going to subject myself to that."

Robinson says he understands the racial tension.

"It’s a weird environment," he says. "Similar to what Alex Kotlowitz writes about in his book There Are No Children Here. Look around—these are not kids. Look at what they’re exposed to. What they have to deal with every day in the neighborhood is unfathomable for a person who lives outside this community."
Even more difficult to comprehend is the disparity of opportunity afforded Harper students. Robinson’s classes had shrunk 40-60 percent since the fall semester. Harper loses nearly as many students as it graduates.

Statistics from the Illinois Board of Edu-cation show 87 percent of Illinois students graduate from high school. In Chicago, just over 70 percent receive their diploma. Harper High School’s graduation rate, according to 2003 statistics, is less than 59 percent.

Robinson talks about Michael, the 18-year- old who is repeating freshman English. Michael has been given his last chance—if he doesn’t pass freshman English this time, he’ll be released from school.

"Michael is being cut loose along with a bunch of other students," Robinson says, his voice raised in frustration. "Basically, Harper and the public education system are saying, ‘Either we failed you, or you failed yourself, but your opportunity is over.’

"Michael is a nice boy. With some guidance and someone to look up to and nurture him, he could be successful anywhere. But soon, he’s going to be told his public education is over."

One measure of Harper’s dire educational circumstances comes in statewide testing comparisons. Illinois uses the Prairie State Achievement Examination to measure math, reading, and writ ing skills. In 2003, 59 percent of Illinois students had passing scores in writing, but just 10 percent passed at Harper. While 53 percent of Illinois students passed the math examination, only one
percent of Harper students passed.

The numbers bring out an odd combination of indifference, outrage, and even
passion in Harper’s teachers.

"I’m a citizen of a country that has a community that is being unfairly served," Robinson says. "It is a disgusting, disgusting injustice. I can’t sit back as a person with a conscience and ignore that.

"It is not ridiculous to say every single child deserves the right to have an excellent educational opportunity, an excellent opportunity to go to a public school, and have a chance to succeed. My students have never had that in many of the schools they’ve gone to and they’re not getting that at the school they’re going to right now. It infuriates me."

ROBINSON HAS SET ASIDE THE DAY for students to review, re-take quizzes, and try to raise their final grade. He’s gotten some heat from school administrators for failing too many students; the higher-ups suggested he give students more time to make up work or catch up on their reading.

Robinson complies, but finds his students inattentive—many sleep or stare out the windows or into their books. Robinson repeatedly urges the students to take advantage of the time. He never raises his voice. He nudges those not working.

"One of the most powerful classroom management techniques is non-verbal gesturing," he explains. "Students don’t want to feel like they’re being enslaved by their teachers. If you’re just telling them ‘Stop,’ ‘No,’ and ‘Do this now,’ you won’t get a very positive response."

Robinson tries to create a positive atmosphere by being a loving role model. Moving about the classroom, he kneels to discuss a student’s work.  He often places his hand on a student’s shoulder or arm.

"I grew up in a very loving family and I try to teach through love," he says. "I want to create an atmosphere where my students feel cared for and feel looked after by somebody who has their well-being in mind.

"I still want expectations to be clear. I want that standard teacher-student relationship to exist, but I have no problem putting my arm around a student’s shoulder as I help with an assignment. I’ll give them a pat on the back for a job well done. I want them to feel comfortable, to feel cared for."


MORE THAN 30 PERCENT OF HARPER HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS are learning disabled, and nearly all face extraordinary challenges. It makes the odds particularly tough for a young teacher.

"These students realize where they go to school; they are not naive to that," Jeremy says. "There are moments here when I feel out of place. It upsets me, when I put my heart and soul into my job, to hear comments about me being white in this community, or to have to deal with slurs being yelled at my car. But don’t hold it against the people saying it."

When Robinson, a thin 24-year-old, was shoved by a 14-year-old boy, the teacher responded with the same calm but intense demeanor he presents in class.

"I just stared back at him and asked him what he thought he was doing," Robinson recalls. "I reminded him there were three security guards outside the door who could take him away to juvenile hall."

One of Robinson’s fellow teachers admits particular admiration for him because he teaches freshmen. Another teacher describes freshmen as "dangerous."

"They don’t strike fear in me," Robinson says. "I truly believe they are not different than students I went to high school with or students from any other environment in the United States. But they live in a community that is dangerous. They live in a community that is not safe and that community is reflected in the school environment. So the fourth floor, by virtue of having the youngest and highest concentration of students, is the most dangerous place here."

YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND the little things to see the big picture at Harper. First you’re struck by the sight of the aging building. Then you notice that all the students are wearing dark pants and plain white T-shirts—the official school uniform. Jeremy says the school had a "Team Jersey Day," when students could wear sports jerseys. "It was the worst day of the year," he recalls. "There was fighting all day."

The uniforms reduce conflict and mask any economic disparity that may exist. Still, economic burdens carry over into the classroom.
The students come to class without texts, or even the basics of paper and pencil. Jeremy provides supplies and decorates his room colorfully, all out of his own pocket. The shelves in his room are lined with red, yellow, and green binders. There are ample vocabulary cards and lesson instructions. Colorful signs hang over Jeremy’s desk. Those signs remind students to "Be nice" or "Work hard," and that there are "No shortcuts" and "No excuses" in this class.

"I bought the materials to make those signs," he explains. His classroom is the most colorful, by far, of the classrooms on the fourth floor. "I’ve used a lot of my salary to buy supplies for class. I look at my job as a mission right now. I’m not out to make a buck, I’m out to make an impact."

And Robinson has made an impact at the high school of nearly 1,400 students. During a school assembly last year when three new teachers were introduced, he was the only teacher to receive student applause.

But the praise he treasures most comes from the students in his own classes. He lost freshman Trish Redmond—"Skinny Mini" —earlier in the year to a program for academically advanced students, but she was quick to offer praise for the Wabash grad.

"One thing I admire about Mr. Robinson is his organization," she wrote in a letter for Teach for America. "He keeps everything organized and colorful—it’s a real pleasure to walk into his classroom. He is a fun and cool teacher. I say this because he’s just about the only teacher I have that can make a game out of his lessons or relate the stuff he teaches to real life.

"Many students I know really enjoy going to Mr. Robinson’s class. They always look forward to learning something new, not just by copying notes or getting mini-lectures, but by actually being a part of the lesson."

"When she came and read the letter to 100 other teachers, it made other people cry," Robinson says. "It made me cry."

THOSE WHO REMEMBER JEREMY ROBINSON as a long-haired, quiet, and studious young guy at Wabash might not recognize the
nattily attired young man stalking the classroom. He wears a blue, long-sleeved shirt and a tie—always a tie.

"I just feel more professional and know I’m more focused when I have the tie on," Robinson says. "And it serves as a barrier between me and my students. Yes, they are young and I am young, but this tie indicates that I’m in charge."

And Robinson moves with a purpose. He stares down those not paying attention or being disruptive. He speaks confidently, whether praising or getting a student’s attention. He works intently with one
student. When another won’t stop talking, Robinson dismisses him.

"Pierre, go to the hall."

No yelling, no lecture. Simply Jeremy in charge of his classroom.

"My emotions travel such different ways with those two students," he reflects. "One continually lifts me up; she works so hard and wants more than anything to be successful in my class and at Harper. Then there’s Pierre, who I have been unable to reach. One-on-one he is a wonderful, intelligent young boy. But somewhere down the line our teacher-student relationship became fractured and it has never been mended.

"Pierre will be back—he’s done the same kind of thing before. When he returns tomorrow, I’m going to kill him with kindness and give him a solid classroom experience. If he wants to run with it, he can. If he chooses not to, that’s his choice. But he’s going to get another opportunity."

JEREMY’S SUCCESS IN TEACH FOR AMERICA has not gone unnoticed. Avra Federman, program director for Teach For America’s Chicago region, calls Robinson one of the highest achieving corps members she has worked with.
"In his first year of teaching, Jeremy’s students made significant academic gains, mastering at least 80 percent of a highly ambitious language arts curriculum. Only 8 other teachers out of 39 I supervise were able to achieve such a high level of accomplishment. Of those eight, Jeremy was one of only two first-year teachers."

Federman admires Robinson’s reflective approach.

"He never stops thinking about the goals he has set for his students and the best way to help his students reach those goals. I really have never seen a first-year teacher as self-motivated as Jeremy.

"His principal raves about him," Federman says. "Jeremy has built a culture of achievement in his classroom and has given his students the positive reinforcement they need to believe they can be successful."

Robinson says his learning experience at Wabash gave him that confidence, as well as the critical thinking skills to face challenges, day in and day out.

"Wabash teaches you to be a responsible citizen, a productive member of society, and to do this in a difficult world," Jeremy says. "Harper has taught me so much about that ‘difficult world.’ It would be very easy for me to not be responsible at Harper High School. I could lower my expectations. I could easily come into work unprepared and get away with it, because that’s what these students have been given left and right in their lives."

Now halfway through his two-year commitment to Teach For America, Robinson is unsure of his future plans. He has applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. He’s even talked of staying at Harper for a third year.

"I’d be perfectly content teaching high school English for a number of years," says Robinson, whose mother spent her career teaching elementary school. "I don’t think I’ll teach the rest of my life, but I could derive a lot of pleasure, purpose, and personal satisfaction if I did." 

Besides teaching kids who have seldom been taught, Robinson has learned plenty.

"In my first year, there were moments I doubted I could have a meaningful impact on my student’s lives. The scholastic background of these students is just so complicated and chaotic."

Today, he has a confidence that only a tough year of experience can bring.

"Being at Harper for more than a year makes you a veteran," Robinson explains. "The turnover here is pretty intense. I have kind of earned my ‘street cred’ at this school."

"The beautiful thing about being a teacher is you’re allowed to be reborn every single year. You get a clean slate with a new batch of students and a brand new opportunity to be better than you were the year before.

"Today, I feel I understand the messiness of it all. I plan a course of attack that is realistic, ambitious, and worthwhile for the kids," Robinson says. In one of the toughest, most neglected neighborhoods in Chicago, he has become a teacher whose students can "look forward to to learning something new," as ‘Skinny Mini’ wrote in her admiring letter, "by actually being a part of the lesson."

"I could go on and on about the ways this work has changed my life,’ he says. "On the whole, I’m better at living life. There is a purpose to what I do. I wake up and I have a mission."

Top photo: Mr. Robinson, with students Marcus Moore, Tacarra Lacy, Teonia Hardaway, Camesha Wilson, Ebony Brown and Christopher Nix.


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