Mentor's Lament

Even tough, effective teachers like Angela Kirkendall struggle to shield inner-city kids from the lure of the streets

A roundish African-American woman with a stern but maternal countenance, the 44-year-old teacher sits with a watchful eye as her classroom runs itself.

Kirkendall's colleagues say she has a reputation as the toughest teacher in the Roosevelt School District. Students outside her class utter her name with looks of horror on their faces. Students and teachers alike describe fifth graders weeping openly when they're told they've been assigned to Kirkendall's class for the coming year.

Students think she's the meanest person at the school, and Kirkendall likes it that way. She says, "It's a rude awakening when they come to me and Ms. Stevenson."

Kirkendall and Rene Stevenson teach two of the school's three sixth grade classes, and swap students for some subjects. The two African-American women--each has taught for 23 years--are the most ardent disciplinarians in a school noted for its rigid order.

"You can call me Godzilla. You can think I'm as mean as can be. But I'll tell you what, you're going to learn something in here. You came to me not being able to write your name. That won't be the case when you leave," says Kirkendall, who is herself a product of Rose Linda's school district.

Kirkendall says parents initially complain that their children think she and Stevenson are unnecessarily mean. But that feeling doesn't last, she says. "By the end of the year they love us."

If Kirkendall encourages a reputation of meanness to intimidate incoming fifth graders, her own students know that inside her classroom she has a different reputation: as a mothering teacher who expects the highest standards of behavior and academic achievement and rewards those achievements with humor and affection.

Interviewed individually outside the classroom, nearly all of Kirkendall's students describe their initial fear of Kirkendall turning to affection. Jennifer Arvizu's response was typical: "Everyone said she was mean. But since I've been in the class, I've made honor roll and I've gotten my homework done. I haven't been as interested in talking on the phone."

Almost never raising her voice, Kirkendall instead stops unruly students in their tracks with a heavy stare and a slow burn. "It just takes a look," she says, explaining that teachers who resort to shouting only encourage adolescent minds that consider most adults insane anyway. Yell at a 12 year-old, she says, and a student will just turn away, make a defiant look to save face with the rest of the class, and ignore what he's been told.

But Kirkendall's calm, intimidating look seems to frighten students to their cores. Other teachers at the school know it, and send their problem students to Kirkendall's class for disciplining. On any given day, while her 26 students are working at their desks, one or more students from other classes and grades may be standing at the walls or in the corners of Kirkendall's room, doing penance by being shunned and ignored.

Kirkendall never sends any of her students to other teachers. She doesn't have to. Her students are so well-behaved, when Kirkendall leaves the room for several minutes to take a phone call, they continue their work as if she'd never left. Without more than a few whispers, they continue to read books and complete assignments. You wait for the room to erupt in noise, slap fights and spitballs, but none of it happens.

"My secret? I always tell students what I expect of them," she says.
The result is a classroom of respectful, pleasant students. Some struggle academically. But many of them excel. So much so that Kirkendall says she's embarrassed to admit that so many of her students are getting high marks.

Kirkendall not only has a reputation for being tough on bad behavior, but tough as a grader as well. A year ago, only three of her 28 students were able to make a B average or better to secure a spot on the school's honor roll.

She hates to say it, but 17 of her students--the majority--have made the list this year.

"It's the best class I've ever had," she says, sounding mystified.

Near the back of the room, Jose and Miguel (not their real names) share a collection of four desks pushed together to make a large tabletop. Although both seem very bright, the two have struggled to raise their grades in Kirkendall's class.

Miguel came into the class with miserable test scores--according to a standardized test he was capable of only second-grade work despite being 12 years old--but he's improved under Kirkendall's tutelage so rapidly that he may, for the first time since enrolling as a kindergartner, make the school's honor roll.

Miguel speaks in a kind of awe about how seriously his father has taken his attempt to raise his grades. His father has changed his work schedule so he can help Miguel with homework, and he rewards Miguel for doing schoolwork on the weekends. After months of dedication, Miguel knows he's just days from finding out if he'll make his goal.

Jose hasn't fared as well. Imaginative and well-spoken, the slight, Mexican-American boy has struggled. But there's a good reason for it.

His grades have plummeted, Kirkendall says, since his father raped his sister and then threatened him if he told anyone about it.

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