When I hear the word “injustice,” my mind immediately pictures the African nation of Guinea-Bissau where unwanted babies and children are buried alive in ant hills as sacrifices to the gods. While in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Isabel Johanning-Mora, an amazing Costa Rican woman who decided she was going to move to Guinea-Bissau as a missionary over 15 years ago. Today, she runs the orphanage Casa Emanuel and calls Guinea-Bissau home. Teletica, the Costa Rican CNN of sorts, broadcast the story of Casa Emanuel over several days, and Costa Ricans responded by giving more than $22,000 to support the incredible work Dr. Johanning is doing.

”Injustice.” I also think of the Kony 2012 campaign that has gone viral within the last week. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted thousands of children to join the fight for no apparent cause other than to cause terror in Uganda and surrounding countries. Invisible Children founder Jason Russell has his hands full as he juggles his sudden global fame with his argument that the U.S. must support African nations in arresting Joseph Kony this year.

Even while thinking of Africa’s many injustices, I can’t help but think of injustice that is closer to home for my 6th graders. On Friday, I sat down with them to explain their ISAT (standardized test) prep assignment, and Yessenia tells me, “Miss Siscoe, we didn’t prepare for the ISATs last school year.”

“Oh really?” I ask, not sure where this is going.

“Yeah,” cuts in Tomas. “And our teacher would just text on her cell phone all day.”

“She didn’t listen to us when we had reading conferences. She would just text,” adds Josúe.

Seeing that this struck an emotional chord with these 6th graders, I continued to listen.

“And you know how you talk with us so much about why it’s not okay to be a bully? Well last year the teacher didn’t do anything about the bullies. It was hard to come to school,” Gabriel looks at his classmates for support.

“Yeah,” Yessenia is raising her voice now. “Teacher, you wouldn’t have liked our class last year. That teacher said she didn’t like us.”

By this point, my heart is breaking and I think I’ve heard enough, but they continue.

“Remember that one time,” Tomas asks everyone, “She had her nails done and then she didn’t want to touch our books? She said she didn’t want to mess up her nails.”

Several more memories surfaced before I gained their attention again.

“Alright, boys and girls, I just have to tell you that my number one rule for myself as your teacher is that my cell phone stays in my purse.”

“We know,” interrupts Yessenia.

I raise my “be quiet” sign. “Also, I want you to know that when I am not listening to you during your reading conferences, it is because I am writing down notes about what I should be sure to teach you. I’m sorry that your teacher last year wasn’t the kind of teacher that you deserve.”

Thoughtful silence.

“Okay, are we ready for our assignment now?”

Injustice in today’s schools does not only exist in U.S. public schools. I observed numerous examples of injustice in private Christian schools in Costa Rica as well. I remember during my first year of teaching, I asked my group of fourth graders what types of healthy snacks were acceptable to bring to school. A fourth-grade-style riot broke out as (I figured out later) students were terrified that I was going to have the same strict snack policies that their 3rd grade teacher had enforced (Her healthy snack list included things like hard-boiled eggs and tofu… Pure injustice in a fourth grader’s mind!). In my second year of teaching, I was faced with the fact that I was paid twice as much for my teaching job than the tica teachers I worked with… simply because I came from the United States. As I ate lunch with my compañeras, I wondered how they treated me so kindly when they knew I was favored above them. After two years of teaching at that school, I turned in my resignation letter explaining my reasons for moving on — being favored above other employees was one of my reasons as I chose not to associate myself with such obvious unfairness.

Here’s the thing about injustice: All that matters is what we do about it. Not what we say. Not what we know. Our actions speak louder than our words. Dr. Johanning decided to build an orphanage, school, and a clinic where hundreds of children’s lives have been changed; Jason Russell is globally campaigning that Joseph Kony be captured and tried in court; and I am being daily faithful to the learning of my 5th and 6th graders. No matter where you are, you can choose to make a difference.


Public School Stories #1

I thought about blogging about ”Wayside Stories from Public School”… remember those books by Louis Sachar? I was so intrigued with the irony in those books, and some of my stories to tell are also ironic.

My current 6th graders had really.bad.teachers over the last couple years, so these kids are kind of jaded against what it means to have a respectful relationship with an educator. From what they have described, it really sounds like they did not learn anything of value during those two years… Enter Miss Siscoe.

Yessenia tells me yesterday, ”Miss Siscoe, why do you let us choose our own books to read?”

Me ”Would you prefer I choose the books?”

Y (thoughtfully) ”No, I like choosing my books.”

Me ”Why’s that?”

Y ”Because then I can learn what I want to.”

Me ”Excellent. That’s what I want you to enjoy.”

Y (pauses, I can see wheels turning) ”Miss Siscoe, why are you a teacher?”

Me ”Why do you ask?”

Y ”Because some teachers don’t like kids but you do.”

Me ”Well, I’m a teacher because I’m really smart and I want to share what I know with you so you can be really smart too!”

Y (smiles) “Really? You think I can be smart too?”

Me “Yes, absolutely. I think you can do whatever you want to as long as you work for it. That’s what teachers are for.”

Y (looks skeptical, frowns) “Not all teachers want that…”

Me “The good ones do.”

Y (smiles) “Yeah, the good teachers do.”

A few weeks ago at church, I was introduced to a mother of seven kids. She quickly informed me that she homeschools her children because of the “horrible” public school district we live in. Then she asked what I do.

“I’m a teacher,” I said.

“Oh really? Where?”

“Actually here in this district.”

“Ohhhh why would you ever want to do that? The kids in this district are so poorly behaved. My children would never have learned anything in these schools.”

I held my tongue from saying what I really wanted to — something like… “Actually, the kids are very well behaved when someone makes limits clear to them. Also, I believe all children are capable of learning, even the kids in this district.” Okay, so maybe I would have said something even stronger (i.e. rude) in the moment… so it’s wise I held my tongue : ).

I truly believe teaching in a public school is a mission field. I pray I can make every moment of these 180 days with these students really count. I truly believe good teachers change lives.