The summer after my first year of teaching was a relief. And a surprise. Upon receiving the results of my students’ language arts tests at the state, district and local levels, I found that my good intentions as a teacher did not equal student success.
I Went Searching for Answers
I looked for books, articles and research that would help me teach my mostly African-American students better. I expected the search to yield better practices and instructional strategies.
Instead, I discovered something more disturbing: My teaching was fueled by perceptions of what my students should be—compliant and ready-made, with great study habits and a love for reading—rather than who they actually were.
I cherished my own middle-class culture and customs above theirs. I did not value the culture of the students I taught.
I assumed that teaching from a quality curriculum and expressing a fondness for my students would result in their achievement and dedication. I was wrong.
Those actions communicated respect and duty, both important courtesies, but neither was deep enough to drive student achievement and transformation. Extended time in school, testing, and even culturally responsive instruction only work well when each effort is powered by a deep and abiding value of students’ lives and cultures.
Many Junes have passed since that first one and each summer got better when I committed to seeing the reality of my students’ lives.
I Went Into Their Communities
Visiting students at their places of comfort was always a joy.
I would see a struggling English student differently after she belted out a solo in church. The interactions between my boys became clearer to me after seeing the pecking order on the blacktop.
Classroom management is different with a student after you have cheered for them next to their parents at a championship football game. Great teaching is dependent upon the ability to match what you know about students to the skills and knowledge they need to learn in order to make a positive impact on the world.
When I really understood my students’ passions and perspectives, I began to create bridges between their daily realities and their future possibilities.
Their Interests Became Mine
The smile on a child’s face after you remembered their latest fantasy football triumph is enough to get into teaching alone.
It was through listening to endless “he said, she said” drama that I learned how storytelling could impact reading comprehension. They applauded my effort. I risked my pride to devise zany ways, like singing, to engage them and make the content they had to read and discuss relevant to their lives.
Sometimes it landed perfectly, other times, it flopped. My students were happy I tried. I went out of my way to show them that their experiences, preferences and culture would not be locked out of instruction.
If you want to know your students’ culture, books can help, but listening to, conversing with and really observing your students can get you to the truth of who they are quicker than anything else.
Self-Disclosure Was Part of the Bargain
One summer, I watched the movie Freedom Writers and by next fall, every student of mine had a journal. Those journals were sacred to me. As I read and commented on their thoughts, they began to write more and more, and as I became interested in their lives, they became interested in mine.
I began to make self-disclosure a part of my new classroom practice. The children knew about my wedding plans, my joy at the birth of my first child and my undying love for the Buffalo Bills.
That’s the thing about students—they might forget your lessons, but they will never forget your interest. To this day, I am fascinated with children.
Once the summer melted into winter, wins in the classroom became a bit more spaced out. When you are unable to motivate a child to complete an assignment or behave in a way that helps them succeed, when you can’t reach a parent with a working number, the Common Core will not help. Neither will more money or another irrelevant professional development.
It is at that moment that you need a why to go on that is birthed from a desire to value students. This why allows you to do uncomfortable things in the service of improving student achievement and life outcomes for black and brown faces.
As you get closer to the history, culture and experience of black and brown students, you inevitably value the resiliency that runs throughout their history. It changed the way they looked to me, because I was truly seeing them for the very first time.
Thus, the power of value is really this: it has the potential to transform the very identity upon whom it is given.