Experienced Teachers Teach Us: Lessons From 18 Years Working With At-Risk Kids

In this series lifetime educators tell us what effective teaching takes and why they love it.

Effective Teaching
Sandra Christenson, now a substitute teacher, taught at Metropolitan Continuation High School for 18 years. (Photo: Courtesy of Sandra Christenson)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

For 18 years Sandra Christenson taught at a continuation school in downtown Los Angeles adjacent to a Greyhound bus terminal. She knows first-hand the trials and tribulations facing at-risk students.

“I would often get new kids every week, even if they were bright; who knew if I would see them next year?” Christenson says. Some students at Metropolitan Continuation High School had already seen the inside of jail, some were young parents and many were apathetic about education.

Amid this tough environment, she made it her mission to teach English and reading classes in a way that compelled her students to want to learn. But to accomplish this, she had learning of her own to do. 

“A student called ‘Monster’ had a heart-to-heart with me my first year teaching at Metro,” Christenson says. “He told me to be stricter. He taught me how to read gang signs and gang graffiti. I learned to learn from my students, and I became a better teacher. They wanted strictness with caring and I changed my style over the years, and it changed all our lives.”

At Metropolitan, it was a challenge to help students just find the bravery to read. Most came from families where parents and siblings did not read books at home for pleasure.

“My AP English class changed the way students looked at hard work,” she said. “One girl, who had endured sexual abuse, found a way to persevere through her life by using the five hours of reading a night and the Saturday classes as a model of toughness and preparedness. After taking the AP test, she reported her attacker who went to jail as a result.”

Christenson discovered that creating goals for students, inspired them to raise their test scores. She encouraged students and teachers to look at results from other schools and see where Metropolitan ranked. Suddenly, students wanted to get better.

“They had never done homework, had never revised,” Christenson said. “I gave them hard deadlines, and students had to stay after school until they were met. We really would hold their feet to the fire. It was transformative for me and my students. Other teachers thought I was crazy, and I should be in another school. But more and more people got on board and the test scores got better.”

Christenson believes teachers must be allowed to bring what they love into the classroom. Her classes followed every election, especially the local ones, and learned about the many sides of the issues. Her students even worked the polls and registered fellow students to vote. Christenson's classes have also followed the stock market, 'buying' stocks, and keeping graphs on their progress.

Christenson led opera and theater workshop classes, so her students could attend performances and films of both. She believes, “A teacher opens up the world to her students.” 

Two years ago she left Metropolitan when her partner got a job in Sacramento. Christenson now substitute teaches there, and on any given day she could teach kindergarten or fifth graders in any part of the city at any socio-economic level.

“I walk into the skins of other teachers now,” she says. “But it has furthered my education and my humility. I learn something everyday. Either I get something great from the teacher or learn something the teacher doesn’t do, but maybe should do. I’m still very dedicated to teaching. If I get a full-time job I’ll go back to it in a minute.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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