About this project

Every year, teacher Alfea Gordon asks students point blank, “Who do you live with?”

She wants to know up front whose parents are living and whose are dead; who has a mother or father in prison; and who is fortunate to live with one or both biological parents or caring relatives.

Such a question might seem unnecessary or rude. Yet Gordon says she needs to know the personal circumstances of the children she teaches, all of whom live in North Lawndale and mostly come from poor families, to connect with them.

Though she never had formal training in social and emotional learning, Gordon knows the value of establishing close relationships with students and making herself available several hours a week to talk with troubled children. Gordon even takes calls on her cell phone on the weekend.

“I stop and listen to them. I sit and listen to them,” she says. “I cry with them.”

Connecting closely with students means fewer student discipline issues, Gordon explains. She rarely has to send any one of the 28 students in her classroom to the principal or disciplinarian to be suspended. Gordon says knowing where students are coming from makes it easier for her to navigate their moods and get them to focus on academic work.

Interpersonal skills like this do not come naturally to every teacher. Some teachers are new to the job, fresh out of school. Or they don’t have children of their own and know little about working with them. Or they come from completely different cultures.

It all adds up to teachers who don’t understand or know how to unravel the problems that many students are grappling with, she says. Classrooms suffer.

Gordon is emphatic about the district taking more intentional steps to train teachers in how to reach out to students. “I am not just saying one workshop,” she says. “Several workshops [are necessary] so teachers really know how to interact with these children.”

A case in point is a 13-year-old known throughout the school for being angry and fighting, but who loves to come to Gordon’s class, where she gets personal attention and has opportunities to perform, like reciting poetry—something she likes to do.

Gordon implores the girl to behave, but she also realizes what the child is up against. The girl’s mother spent six years in prison, and she barely knows her father. She recently wrote Gordon a letter saying she’s torn between wanting to believe that her mother and God love her and the reality of her life. The girl writes that sometimes she feels so bad she wants to die.

But the girl ends the letter by saying that Gordon is her mother.

“I just cried and cried,” Gordon says.

Even Gordon says that many times she’s taken aback by the problems students bring to her. She’s had students tell her they’d been beaten, molested or that their parents were engaging in illegal activity. As a mandated reporter of child abuse, she tells them she will have to pass along some of the information.

She often also consults with the principal or assistant principal about how to respond.

“I never had a class on what to say to a child,” she says. “Sometimes I am like, ‘God help me, what do I say to this baby?’ Sometimes I am terrified and I talk to someone about what I should say. I usually wind up telling them, it is going to be all right.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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