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The Inner City Has Changed Me

I am not the same person I was four years ago before working with youth in Edmonton's inner city. I'm happy to say that I've been changed for the better. When I walked through the doors of my classroom four years ago I was both excited and nervous. Most of the youth at my school are Indigenous and I was hoping they'd be cool with a hyper and nerdy teacher who liked to sit in circles and talk about social issues. I felt I had a lot of proving to do when I first started and I must of done something right as within a few weeks I had a number of students tell me they talked to the principal to let him know that I was "cool" and that he should keep me around.

It is little instances such as this that keep me motivated to become the best teacher I can be. But more so, it is instances like this that keep my heart and solidarity with the students that I teach. Over the last four years I have been inspired at the daily resistance and motivation of students to succeed despite insurmountable odds and barriers that have been placed in front of them. Many of my students experience systemic racism and poverty on a daily basis and yet still maintain hope not only for themselves but the communities in which they live. They inspire me each day by showing up and doing their best despite dealing with barriers such as addictions, housing issues, and the impact of poverty in general.

One of the most inspiring days I've ever had teaching was back in December of 2012. I arrived to class that day to find that none of my students were in the school. I started walking around the cafeteria and asked a group of students where everybody was. They told me most of the students were going to something called the "Idle No More" protest down at Churchill Square. Now, to some teachers this might be seen as students disobeying the rules, but to me I saw this as an awesome learning opportunity. I quickly fired up the school van, gathered up any straggling students who wanted to attend and we headed down to the protests for the morning. I found almost all of my students there participating in drumming circles, dancing and just marching with their families, friends and community members. We were able to come back to the school afterwards to have lunch and just discuss the many reasons why they felt it was important for them to attend this protest. We talked about colonialism, federal legislation, and how they felt that the current federal government was just against their interest as First Nations youth. It was one of the best teaching days that I can remember.

Memories like this are great moments for me to reflect on and remember about the good times I've had working with my youth. However, what has had a profound impact on me as a teacher is the amount of loss I've gone through over the last four years. I've always been hesitant to write about this in detail in fear of perpetuating stereotypes of working in an "inner city school" but I feel I need to put "pen to paper" about this to work through some of my thoughts.

Six of my students have passed away over the last four years. Some took their own lives and others had their lives taken away by someone else. I can't really explain what it's like to teach in an environment where one day you're teaching a student and the next day you find out that you'll never see that students face in your class again. You'll never see them smiling and laughing and working hard to have a positive life for themselves. To this day I can see their faces clearly in my mind when I think about them. I often wake up in the middle of the night after a dream that they were back in my class and everything was "back to normal". It has become difficult to watch or read the local news as every headline I see about a missing or murdered youth I get a sinking feeling in my stomach and just hope and pray that my youth were not involved.

I'm a white male of privilege. I did not grow up on the same streets as my youth and was afforded much more opportunity in my life growing up. I always knew that I had a home and food to eat each day with a supportive family. Because of my privileged background, I know that experiencing this type of loss has been shattering for me but is all to common for my youth as they experience loss at a much higher rate than I do. It is because of this experience that I can get very passionate, engaged and motivated to improve my teaching practice as well as our entire system of education. It is utterly painful to see that the society in which we live can abandon and neglect my students and the issues that they face. As a teacher, I not only have a responsibility to provide a safe and caring learning environment for my students, but I also have the duty to use my advocacy/activism to improve the conditions within the community I teach in.

Since I've been a teacher, I have always been passionate about social justice and teachers advocating for a better education system and world for all of us. Those are not platitudes and hollow words to me. As long as I have the energy and capacity to fight for a better world for the youth I teach I will continue to support them and their struggle every day. I vow to ask questions about how I can be a better ally to my youth and the inner city community in which I teach. I am not here to offer solutions for my youth and the inner city community as I have not lived their lives. But as their teacher I can offer my support and solidarity to work alongside them to build a safe and more positive community that will allow all people to reach their full potential as human beings.

Edmonton's inner city has profoundly changed me and I am not the same teacher or man that I was before. The pain I have gone through reminds me to enjoy the positive moments with my youth and to let them linger within my classroom. It's hard for me to believe that any amount of "core competencies" or "21st century skills" will be meaningful to my students. Each and every day that I continue to work with my youth I will provide them with all the love, caring, support and compassion that I can. That way, we can hopefully work with each other to achieve justice and equity for all.