4 Things I’ve Loved about Neighborhood Teaching

With the advent of COVID-19, I had to put my exploration of free schools and self-directed education on hold. Last year, I returned to Baltimore City and taught virtually at Green Street Academy, a public charter school in West Baltimore. What follows is one in a series of posts reflecting on my teaching experience in the past year.

A tiny rowhouse painting I did while hanging out at the Allendale Community Association summer cookout, July 2021. Leave it to the association veterans to bring paint and mini canvasses to entertain the kids, and the kids-at-heart.

Everyone loves a short commute. But most teachers in urban districts live far away from their school. Often, they don’t even live in the city. We call those “county teachers.”

Obviously, geography doesn’t make you a good or bad teacher, and people have lots of reasons for living where they live. Some of those reasons are explicitly settler-colonialist (e.g. you want the bigger city paycheck but the perceived safety and amenities of a wealthier/whiter space), some are subtly settler-colonialist (e.g. your family has lived out in the county ever since white flight happened and you want to be near them), and some aren’t settler-colonialist at all (I can’t think of an example but I’m sure there’s at least one).

No matter the reason, living apart from the community where you teach (or police, or deliver the mail, or any other public service for that matter) can have real negative consequences. You’re more likely to be oblivious to your students’ lived experience and less likely to know the people, places, and events that anchor the community and have the potential to make learning come alive for your students.

“Neighbor Teaching” is the opposite of being a county teacher. Neighbor teachers make a deliberate choice to live close to their school, in the same neighborhood where their students live. My friend and colleague Michael Sarbanes lives in the next neighborhood over from me and exposed me to this idea. He’s been a neighbor teacher for six years, and his writing on that topic didn’t influence my decision to move to the neighborhood near my school, but it has shaped my thinking since.

In cities like Baltimore, neighborhood teaching can be challenging. School choice policies mean that middle and high school students may come from all over the city, complicating what it means to live in community with students and families. Living in the neighborhood can also blur boundaries between teachers’ personal and work lives, sometimes for the better but sometimes for the worse. And historical segregation, systemic disinvestment, and apartheid policies mean that someone who grew up wealthy or middle class may need to adjust to new norms, environmental factors, and understandings of personal and collective safety if they choose to live where they teach. For someone who grew up in the neighborhood, it may mean continued exposure to past traumas brought about by the forces of white supremacy.

For the past year, I’ve lived where I teach, and I’ve found that for me, occupying the identity I occupy, the positives far outweigh the challenges. Here’s what I’ve loved most.

1. The neighborhood is great.

I live in Allendale, in West Baltimore. Many people consider it to be an extension of Edmondson Village. Everyone considers it to be the hood, though the way people say that word – with surprise, love, tenderness, resignation, discomfort, or fear – says more about them than the neighborhood, which holds a diverse mix of incomes, ages, careers, and which is generally quiet and peaceful.

I’ve liked living in Allendale more than any other place I’ve lived. My neighbors are friendly and watch out for me, the houses are small and unpretentious, and the people are industrious.

There’s certainly issues, including food access, some violence, some vacant houses, few anchor businesses, and an under-resourced rec center, but the community association is working on that.

Plus it’s cheap, and I hate spending money I don’t have to.

2. I can connect the dots.

By living in the neighborhood and being involved with the community association, I’ve learned a ton about the resources, people, history, and spaces that shape the community.

This is most important for my personal understanding and growth. How can I teach in a place where I don’t know the joys and challenges? How often will I misunderstand students or make harmful assumptions? How many opportunities will I miss to draw on students’ lived experience to explain new concepts? People learn best when new concepts are linked to prior knowledge. By drawing on the geography and dynamics of the neighborhood, I’ve been able to make connections for kids that would have gone over my head two years ago.

Living in the neighborhood is a 24/7 class in understanding more about my students and how they came up. I haven’t lived their lives, and having a car, savings, a job, adulthood, and pale skin buffers me from many challenging experiences, but I’m a lot closer than I would be if I lived thirty miles out.

3. I can share resources.

Not only can I connect the dots for myself, I can help do so for my students. Last year I brought in guest speakers like our district’s City Councilman, Kris Burnett, shared information about food giveaways and vaccine clinics, and shared neighborhood job opportunities with students.

This year I hope to take this further by deepening the relationships I’ve built into full-fledged partnerships between the high school where I work and the neighborhood elementary school and putting in more legwork to help build the community association. Over time I hope to become part of the village of the community, helping those who are already doing to the work to bring up the next generation of leaders so we can pass the torch.

4. It matters to kids.

Unfortunately, the bar is very, very low for teachers, especially white ones. I could basically trip and still clear it. Living in the neighborhood shouldn’t build instant rapport with kids, but for a lot, it does. Living here signals that I’m committed to this place, I’m not leaving anytime soon, I care about your life and your community, and I don’t look down on you.

Living and teaching in the same neighborhood has been a powerful and positive experience this year – despite the fact that I wasn’t in the classroom with my students. I’ve felt more supported and connected to others and more sure of myself than I’ve ever felt in the past. I always look forward to coming home. And a ten-minute walk? Who can beat that commute?

This fall, I’m finally in the market for a house. You can bet I’ll be looking in Allendale.

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