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LANHAM — One day, math teacher Ernesto Lara was taking a break from his classroom in the staff lounge with a few other teachers. The group began to share stories of their teaching experiences at the school.
The experiences those teachers had at that school, Lara realized, could have shocked the world if they were made public.
These were moments that had shaped who he was not only as a teacher but as a person, and he wanted his stories to be told.
So in his last few weeks at the school, Lara sat down, and he began to write his story.
In his book “A School Left Behind,” Lara gives a realistic perspective of the teaching profession, particularly in a school with immense challenges, as he describes the ups and downs and successes and failures of his first four years of teaching at a Prince George’s County school.
Lara, a Dominican American educator as well as a songwriter, started teaching over 13 years ago at “Dayton High School,” a Prince George’s County Public School whose name was changed in the book for confidentiality reasons.
In his four years working at the school, Lara was able to experience each aspect of the human spectrum as the students he taught came from a variety of difficult backgrounds where they often faced with domestic violence, homelessness, violent death, drug use and abuse and other traumas in their personal lives that carried over into their daily lives in school.
“It made me realize how little most people know about the realities OF teaching and how truly exhausting and difficult yet rewarding it can be,” Lara said.
In such an environment, Lara quickly found that he became more than just a teacher to the students at Dayton High School. He also found that the actions that arose because of their situations outside of school were not of their own doing, but more so the impact of their social and economic dynamic.
“The vast majority of the students I taught were wonderful, warm-hearted people placed in overwhelming and difficult circumstances that were beyond their control,” Lara said.
As such a large and diverse school system, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) is one of the top 25 largest school systems in the U.S. located in the second largest county in Maryland.
Despite the breadth and wealth of Prince George’s County and its school system, Dayton High School remains in a largely low-income community where many of its problems extend.
In addition to socioeconomic issues and the family problems that come along with it, Lara said lack of proper organization and difficulty in finding effective professionals in an unhealthy and unappealing environment contributed to the numerous issues he saw the students face and carry into their school life, thus, making Dayton a school left behind.
“Functioning within a system that is largely the result of socioeconomic design brings to light the disparities and inequalities within the very fabric of our society,” he said.
When Lara left Dayton High School, he left PGCPS altogether. He has been teaching mathematics in Montgomery County Public Schools for the last 11 years.
Although he inevitably ended up moving to Montgomery County, the challenges he faced every day at Dayton contributed to him leaving Prince George’s County schools.
No matter the cause of his leaving, the four years he spent at Dayton have stayed with him and changed him not only as a person but as a teacher.
He said it is challenging to sustain optimistic perspective in the face of so many challenges at Dayton. However, it was those challenges that maintain him.
Additionally, Lara uses his musical skills for educational instruction. His Spanish MC DVD and Resource Workbook integrates music into the instruction for introductory Spanish, in which he also teaches. He also uses music for math instruction.
Although Lara teaches in Montgomery County now, he still faces challenges similar to those at Dayton but not to the same degree. He said he has found that the most significant difference between teaching in Prince George’s and in our neighboring county is that they have more effective means of confronting those challenges such as higher security measures and responses to deal with conflict more rapidly and effectively.
No matter what school he goes to next, from the moment he walked into Dayton to the moment Lara left as he wrote about in the book, such experiences have undoubtedly left their mark on him.
“Teaching is infinitely more than just the subject matter we teach,” Lara said. “It is the collection of human lives that exist within those walls from morning to afternoon with all of the joy, pain, anger, and love that form a part of the human spectrum.”