“Teaching is not something one learns to do, once and for all, and then practices, problem free, for a lifetime, any more than one knows how to have friends, and follows a static set of directions called ‘friendships’ through each encounter. Teaching depends on growth and development, and it is practiced in dynamic situations that are never twice the same.” ---William Ayers
I think that most teachers would agree to the sentiment expressed above, including those teachers that don’t regularly practice its meaning. Teaching never truly remains the same. While lesson plans may be similar in many instances, there should always be room for growth and modification from class to class or year to year. With this in mind, the central reflection question for this first newsletter is: how are you growing?
I believe that one of the characteristics of stellar teachers is constant reflection. A reflective teacher takes time to ask questions about his or her practice and determine what worked well, what could be improved, and how to become better at the teaching craft. Similarly, the best teachers reflect on how their own experiences and background affect their biases (unrecognized or otherwise), worldviews, and practice. We all view our school subjects and our students within a particular cultural lens that must constantly be evaluated and assessed in order to reach all students. Teaching is an art (that’s what pedagogy means), after all, and art is constantly evolving. So, why do you do teach the way you do? Why do you have the rules you do? Why do you interact with students the way you do? Everything must have a purpose, and that purpose should not be based on assumptions. You may say that doing X leads to Y, but is that the way you expect it to work in your head, or is that the way it actually plays out in your classroom. Does your discipline strategy actually increase student achievement, or does it only make sense in theory?
As we enter the next week of teaching, think about how you are already growing and how you can grow more. Maybe this is in acquiring a certain skillset, content knowledge, or cultural awareness of your students. All of these things improve teaching. I challenge you to intentionally seek out others that can help you grow. Too often teachers remain in silos scared to admit their weaknesses and have others critique them. Instead, try to see everything as an opportunity for growth. We all have areas that need work.
Some subliminal second thoughts:
He’s in my classroom, but he didn’t choose to be there…
He didn’t choose this school, and he didn’t choose me as his teacher.
He didn’t select his father’s income, his mother’s absence, or his crowded house.
He didn’t choose to confound my pet curriculum and my pet teaching prescriptions.
He didn’t choose to value different things than I, or to speak a different, albeit more colorful, idiom;
He just didn’t choose…
He can’t smile nicely when his world tells him to feel anger, nor can he frown away warmth and fair play…his mask is not like mine.
He could never comprehend the gap that separates his mercurial moods from my pale, practiced rightness.
He didn’t decide one day to shape his nose, his brow, or his mouth into forms that trigger my discomfort and disdain.
He doesn’t know that he won’t learn if I don’t think he can, or that my eyes and voice limit his circle of friends.
He just doesn’t know how much his future depends on ME.
He just doesn’t know…
- White woman teacher, 1969
(Larson & Olson, 1969, p. 17; as cited by Hancock, 2011)
Statistically speaking, the significant majority of teachers in the United States are white females, while the majority of students are now students of color. Quite obviously, this is not the scenario for everyone. There are teachers of color and male teachers. There are teachers with different religious beliefs, political views, and life experiences. Some teachers have homogenous classrooms, while others teach a variety of students differing in socioeconomic status, race, and prior academic achievement. What is consistent, however, is that most teachers across the nation are charged with teaching students that are often very different from them. Considering this, how does the above poem cause you to think about your relationship to your students? Though it focuses on white females and students of color, the basic premise can be easily applicable to many different scenarios.
Teachers and students often come from different worlds—generational, linguistic, and cultural. What you (and I) have that our students don’t have, however, is a position of power within the classroom. Educators often focus on the responsibility that students have in their own learning and achievement, and this is an important point that should not be ignored or neglected. But too often teachers and administrators fail to give equal recognition to the numerous direct decisions they make that affect their students’ outcomes. How can you understand your students more this upcoming week and beyond? Conversely, how can you share more of yourself to help them get to know you? One of the inherent challenges of teaching is recognizing the power and influence that teachers have and being careful to not simply try to make students “more like us.” How can you create a safe space for mutual growth? I believe this is a task we are all up for.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”—Wendy Mass
Many people often think of educating others as focusing on skills and strategies, but we all know that empathy and relationship building play a large role as well. Despite this, as we go through our days and weeks, we can often forget the struggles that others face that are not disclosed to us. A terse word from a colleague or a rebellious attitude from a student may be a reflection of inner turmoil and angst. In these cases, we often either take two stances: (1) We do not hold others accountable and instead feel sorry for them, or (2) We buckle down and attempt to gain minimal understanding and provide limited grace. I believe that our responses do not have to be so dichotomous, however. We can hold students accountable for their actions and demonstrate compassion, grace, and empathy. Similarly, our colleagues need some grace as well. Instead of being quick to jump to assumptions about a student or colleague that frustrates you this week, try to understand his/her perspective or reaction and then share yours—in that order. I am reminded of the importance of this quote often as I talk with students, parents, and staff going through their own battles. I know there are many more I know nothing about. I hope to model that grace and believe that you all will join me. Grace contributes to trust and trust enables better relationships and teaching. So much of quality teaching is effective communication and building relationships. How can you grow in this area this week?
“A teacher is a moral agent. It is a secret hidden in plain sight. Almost everything a teacher does, has the potential to carry a moral import because ‘the place we call school is an environment of moral interaction and sometimes moral struggle’ (Nash, 2005, p.4; as cited in Kumaravadivelu, 2012). A teacher’s moral agency is revealed in myriad ways: in the selection of textbooks, in the way curricular content knowledge is re-structured and re-presented, in the use of instructional strategies, in the choice of classroom interactional patterns, in the way classroom activities are organized, in the teaching style, in cultivating student relations, in responding to conflicts generated by students and peers, etc.”---B. Kumaravadivelu
Do you ever think about your teaching profession as it relates to morality? I think that most of us recognize that we have a moral obligation to provide our students with the best education possible. I’m even willing to venture that many of us became teachers at least in part because we wanted to help others and help change lives. That in itself is moral. But how do personal morality, values, and beliefs affect even your small decisions in class? If a teacher is a moral agent as the author above notes, then we must reflect on all of our decisions in the classroom and how they affect students. We must think of ourselves as transmitters of morality and determine what morals and values we are perpetuating. Though we aim to get students to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions, teaching itself is never neutral. We pass on many recognized and unrecognized lessons in the midst of our interactions and instruction. What morals, values, and lessons are you passing on to your students today?
Though I typically begin each reflection section with a quote and some subsequent questions/thoughts, this week will be slightly different in that there will be no central quote. In light of the continuing protests surrounding black lives matter, police brutality, and racial disparities and divisiveness, I would like to ask some questions, offer some suggestions, and challenge each of you.
My first questions are simple: Did you (or do you ever) address issues dealing with race and racial tension in class? Did you discuss the events of this past week in Tulsa and Charlotte with your students? If your answer was yes or no to both of these questions-- why?
I would like to propose that not addressing these issues in class can be more harmful than tackling them imperfectly. Teachers are often afraid of discussing tense or controversial issues in class, but I believe these are the very things that we need to discuss. Civic engagement, which has historically been a large part of the mission of public education, depends on the ability of students to engage, evaluate, and determine solutions for divisive issues. And teachers have the ability to help students process these events in class instead of solely through social media and friends/family members. Students need to have the space to engage in divisive issues and learn how to share their feelings and perspectives respectfully, and even when emotions overflow, empathize with those that have those emotions. Finally, students need to learn how to truly listen to each other and walk in someone else’s shoes. This does not happen if opportunities for these discussions are not given in class.
In addition to the above reasons, however, I fear that not addressing the events of this past week further validates the opinion of some students that school is not relevant to their lives and that teachers do not really care or understand their fears and perspectives. I fear that not addressing racial issues diminishes the credibility of the school in some students’ eyes. We have students that have real fears and real anger and real sadness, and overlooking these things does not help them learn better. These are students who are racial minorities and students who have parents in law enforcement, or both at the same time. It alienates them and causes the wounds to fester. And ignoring issues does not make them go away.
Perhaps you are saying to yourself that you don’t feel prepared to have discussions surrounding these issues. You don’t know how to begin. Maybe you are worried about getting off track with your lesson plans. These are valid concerns. To answer I would say: (1) It’s time to be more prepared to deal with these issues and you can begin that process today by researching more yourself (and I plan on putting together reading lists and a professional development proposal for the division to hopefully fund); (2) Begin with at least a simple affirmation of what has happened and an understanding that there is pain, fear, and differing perspectives. Offer your empathy and begin the process of asking questions and listening more; and (3) I would argue that taking time out of your lesson plan to deal with large current issues is important and could pay more dividends in the future. Even if this is not so, contrary to some beliefs, tests are not the most important thing for learning ever created. And many completely relevant lesson plans can be built around these issues. Take for example, the 1967 Kerner Report and examine its relevance to today as a historical document. Ask why things have not changed very much. Look at the rhetorical skills and devices used in MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and help students understand the process of constructing persuasive essays for topics they are passionate about. Examine statistics surrounding racial disparities and help students evaluate their genesis. I can come up with examples for every subject if you would like some help. Lastly, embed in each of these lessons the notion that social issues do not have to be an either/or position.
I leave you with one final question. If you were able to go throughout your week and not have to concern yourself with the issues taking place in Tulsa and Charlotte, or numerous other cities, why do you think that is? If you are able to go about your day as if nothing ever happened, not addressing the issues at either school or at home, it’s time to embrace a deeper level of discomfort and tension to understand the pain of so many students and families that you teach, both those that are black and those that are close to police officers. We can support both at the same time. Doing nothing, however, maintains the status quo, and that is something I aim to change with your help.
"...Young people themselves, including those who are the most neglected, have the answers to their dilemmas and issues. Let's call things as they are. Instead of just forcing change on our youth with punishment-driven policies, test-driven curricula, or even Ritalin for unfocused and attention-starved children, let's change the dispirited and imaginative environment of their homes, neighborhoods, and schools. A truly liberating classroom is one in which the spirit of learning, inherent in all children and youth, is met with the most vigorous, innovative, and challenging spirit of teaching."
When you read the quote above, what is your first response? Is it one of pessimism and cynicism, or one of hope and an invigorated spirit? Does it reflect your views about education and your students, or do you disagree? I believe that one of the keys to engaging youth in learning is to bring in their community and their culture, providing them with opportunities to come up with solutions for the problems and issues they see all around them. How do math, science, history, English, art, drama, band, or any other course relate to their lives if they are not taught to use those subjects to change the world in which they live? As we prepare students for college and careers, let’s make sure we also prepare them to focus not just on their own desires, but also on serving and making the world a better, more equitable place. This week, consider the questions below from the series foreword to Holler If You Hear Me by Gregory Michie (p.XVII). Consider whether or not they have shaped your teaching philosophy and how they should:
• What are the issues that marginalized or disadvantaged people speak of with excitement, anger, fear, or hope?
• How can I enter a dialogue in which I will learn from students about the problems and obstacles they face?
• What experiences do students already have that can point the way toward solutions?
• What narratives are missing from the “official story” that will make the problems my students encounter more understandable?
• What current or proposed policies serve to privilege the powerful, and how are they made to appear normal and inevitable?
• How can I expand the public space—in my classroom, in the larger community—for discussion, problem-posing, and problem-solving in order to encourage fuller and wider participation?