When my high school students bubble in responses on their standardized tests, they often have to start by identifying their racial and ethnic background. Many of them have the same answer as me: African-American.
But my students and I are so much more than a bubbled answer on a Scantron test. While we may share the same skin color, beneath the surface, we are defined by diverse backgrounds, communities and lived experiences, all of which have and will determine our future success.
Unlike my students, I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, the youngest of nine children. You might think that, as the baby of a busy immigrant family, my education would not have been my parents’ focus. But I come from a culture in which education is the top priority, and as was the case with all my siblings, my parents set and enforced high standards for my performance in the classroom.
That was crucial for me: excellence as a student did not come naturally, and I certainly procrastinated more than my fair share, but their determination and influence kept me on track.
Being the youngest even had its perks: my older siblings had all applied to and attended college before I even picked up my first application. This guaranteed two things: first, I knew off the bat that college was not an option for me—it was a given. Second, while I would have struggled to keep my head above water if I were on my own throughout the complex admissions process, with the knowledge of my experienced siblings to elevate me, I made it through and was accepted into my first-choice school: the University of Georgia.
The Difference Between Me and My Students
Now, compare my experience to that of so many of my students—young people who look like me and may require the same guidance to achieve academic success as I did. It is there, unfortunately, where the similarities end. Too often, my students have not had the same encouragement that I received. Too often, they are disenfranchised by systems that favor a different race or people with more power and privilege. Too often, they are made to believe that they belong in the criminal justice system, rather than walking the halls of a university.
Although we share a skin color, unlike me, many of my students have been told all their lives that the deck is stacked against them, that achievement is a lofty goal. Or they haven’t had the blessing of a family that understands how to navigate the college application process. Few have been held to the same standards to which my parents held me.
It is this, the differences between my students and I, that motivates me to be a better teacher every single day. Because I know if my experiences were different, if I didn’t receive intense support from my family, my life could have turned out very differently—and I don’t want that potential wrong turn to befall my students.
Teachers Can Help Change the Course
It’s what should inspire all of us, as educators.
It should scare us to realize how important our job is to our students. I know that it scares me. Young people are so malleable—the time in their lives in which we, as educators, interact with them is critical to the adults that they will one day become.
Teachers have the opportunity to positively influence the trajectory of a child’s academic future, which in turn can change the trajectory of their careers and lives. Indeed, we all know that ending generational poverty often begins when a child goes to college. We have the ability to broaden students’ horizons and share our wisdom when it comes to choosing a higher education path or a career.
We are so often in the unenviable position of being the only outside influence to push our students to do better, to see their potential and encourage them to tap into it. And with our most difficult and neediest students, we must find the strength to not give up on them, and to ensure, in turn, that they won’t give up on themselves.
Clearly, teachers aren’t the only adults who can influence a child. There is a powerful role for families, community leaders, mentors, coaches, etc. But, our role and opportunity is great. Whether you look like your students or not, every teacher has the power to connect with his or her students. By getting to know our students as individuals—their stories, their families, their communities—we can create classrooms full of human beings, rather than just names and test grades. As teachers, we must take every opportunity to talk to our students, to understand their experiences and to find the unique ways in which they need our help.
If we want our students to recognize and own their power to change lives and the world, we, as teachers, must recognize and own our power to change the world one classroom at a time. Whether it’s showing them how to complete a college application or inspiring them with the words of Nelson Mandela, we have the power to fill gaps in our students’ lives—and to make anything possible.