To inner city kids, she’s the ‘best teacher’

Her students’ struggles fuel her teaching passion
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Kari George of Port Washington lives in one world and teaches in another.

Each day, she leaves her middle-class neighborhood and drives 30 minutes south to a school atmosphere many in her home city perhaps can’t fathom.

George is a fourth-grade teacher at Clarke Street School, one block south of Center Street between 28th and 29th streets in Milwaukee. Only one of her 23 students has a biological father. Some parents are incarcerated. One student is homeless.

On Monday, the school was locked down due to gunfire in the area. It wasn’t the first time, George said.

“I feel safe in school,” she said. “The neighborhood? No.”

“You feel really bad for them growing up in neighborhoods like that. They can’t play outside.”

The students’ struggles fuel her passion.

“I love the kids,” George said. “I really want them to understand the importance of education so they can have a better life.”

George’s efforts this year earned her a teacher of the year award from the Metropolitan Milwaukee Alliance of Black School Educators. Her entire class is Black.

She didn’t know she was even nominated until her principal included congratulations in her morning messages last month. She received a plaque and attended the 20th annual Teacher of the Year Gala at the Wisconsin Center on May 6. She was one of 178 teachers honored. A list of speakers included superintendents and principals from the area.

Her colleagues showered her with congratulations, and her students are thrilled. 

“They go around saying ‘We have the best teacher,’” George said. “I didn’t expect this. I’m not someone who wants all this attention.”

She is someone who has dedicated her life to children. George, who moved to Port from Wausau in eighth grade and graduated from Port High in 1989, always wanted to be a teacher.

She developed a love for school early at elementary school, but she wasn’t the best student. “I struggled with tests. Some kids aren’t good test takers but they’re intelligent,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a bad student. Everyone has to work on something.”

Her parents didn’t pressure her about grades, but education was always emphasized. Her father had a college degree and worked for Kimberly-Clark, and her mother worked in the bridal industry and as a dental hygienist. Family vacations with her parents and younger sister entailed Civil War tours and other educational destinations.

George said she is thankful her parents also taught her not to judge people by how they look and instead use character as a measuring stick.

George earned a college degree in interior design before going back for her education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. All her practice teaching was done at inner-city schools.

“UWM will train you,” she tells prospective teachers. “You will be prepared for anywhere.”

George spent one year teaching in the inner-city in Charlotte, N.C. , before she moved back to Wisconsin to be near family and friends. She taught 18 years in Cedarburg, mostly in first grade and a couple of years in fourth grade.

That’s where she applied skills from her first college degree as well. “I always got a lot of jokes about my immaculate classroom,” she said. “The principal joked, ‘You’re classroom is always on the tour.’”

While teaching in an upper-middle class community doesn’t have some of the heart-breaking issues George sees in her current job, it did have pressure. Test scores could never get high enough, even among special education students, and George said she felt under appreciated.

When she left, she decided to return to the inner city.

“I knew what I was getting myself into,” she said.

But there was still some culture shock. Cursing at a teacher that would trigger a suspension and a call to parents in one district doesn’t rise to anywhere near that level where George teaches.

Fights in the classroom aren’t uncommon and can start with just a whisper as one student walks by another. That’s why George doesn’t allow her students to leave their seats for any reason without permission.

She used to physically break up fights but was told to stay out of them and call someone else for her own safety.

Her assistant principal gave her a tip on promoting good behavior. George gives each student a Popsicle stick and takes it away if they misbehave. If they still have their sticks at lunch, they receive a reward, and another if they have them at the end of the day.

George once swore she wouldn’t give students sweets but changed her mind. “They really respond to that little piece of candy,” she said.

Breakfast and lunch are provided at school for the students— much needed in most cases. They are given two Chromebook computers, one for use at school and one at home. But getting students to do schoolwork is a challenge.

“One had to move into a homeless shelter. Is he really worried about his spelling test?” George asked.

The pandemic took a huge toll. Many students rarely logged in or did any work.

“They basically lost a year,” George said of inner-city students.

Some still don’t attend school regularly, perhaps instead taking care of younger siblings while their mother is at work or can’t get there due to a shortage of bus drivers and lack of a family car.

Students are surprised that George shows up daily. They’re not used to consistent role models, and the school has a high teacher turnover rate. Her class is enamored with George’s husband Jeff and recently wanted to call and sing him happy birthday. The students think it’s funny that George is about as old as some of their grandmothers.

George’s Milwaukee job is different from her teaching in Cedarburg in other ways as well. The school has no art or physical education teacher, and George said the students need gym class since it’s unsafe to play outside at home. She has one prep period per week when students are in music class. Even then, she is often working with students who need help.

Those children keep her coming back to the Clarke Street School.

“Here, I feel appreciated every day by my principal. I know I’m supported,” George said.

She also knows where she wants to be. Years ago, she earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from National Louis University, but doesn’t want to become an administrator.

“No desire ever,” George said. “I want my classroom with my kids. I want to teach.”

Outside of school, George, Jeff and their two sons, ages 12 and 10, go camping across the Midwest, swimming and attend sporting events and musicals in which the children participate — opportunities George knows don’t exist for her students.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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