Back to school time makes everyone a little nervous: parents, teachers, staff and especially students. Conventional wisdom tells us that students are primarily worried about their friends’ and classmates’ opinions of them.
But students are also worried that teachers have the wrong impression before they even walk in the door.
This can be extra challenging when implicit biases and assumptions are in play. As a suburban parent friend of mine advised, “Give my child the benefit of the doubt. Don’t treat my child like every other child because of your preconceived notions of what is typical of their age, gender or ethnic group.”
To get to that level of understanding, teachers need to know a lot about gender stereotyping and how to challenge it, the wide range of developmental stages where children and youth can be even within the same age range and awareness of and willingness to challenge their own assumptions about what children with disabilities can do.
It also requires a level of cultural competence that keeps people from making mistakes like calling a middle-school Black boy a “porch monkey.”
The White teacher in this incident didn’t know the racial history behind the phrase, was suspended, learned about it and apologized. That’s not a mistake any teacher should ever make, yet it happens again and again.
I Want You to Know Who I Am
Even children under age 10 are aware of these biases and assumptions. But they want to connect with their teachers as the unique people they are. So, in an attempt to help with communication between students and their teachers, I took a highly unofficial poll of friends, family and members of social media groups, who asked their children: “What would you want your teacher to know about you before the first day of school?”
Because I am a Black woman, this sample skews heavily toward African-Americans from Illinois. But it also includes other children of color and children with disabilities. Here’s what the young people said:
- “I want my teacher to know how to say my name.” Girl, age 7, Nevada.
- “I want her to know that I love singing, dancing and drawing, because those things might get me in trouble.” Boy, age 8, Nevada.
- “I want my teacher to know that when I don’t eat breakfast. It makes me sleepy.” Boy, age 9, Illinois.
- “I want them to know that I am smart, bold and confident.” Girl, age 8, Illinois.
- “I want them to know that I am intelligent and that I’m looking forward to new friends and teachers. Also, that just because I am African-American, it doesn’t mean I won’t be hard worker.” Young man, age 12, Illinois.
- “I would want my teacher to know what my favorite subject is. I would also want my teachers to know that despite the fact that I am African-American, I am still a kind-hearted and good-willed student.” Girl, age 10, Illinois.
- “That I watched ‘Incredibles 2’ a lot this summer and that they are my friends.” Girl, age 6, Illinois.
- “I would want my teacher to know I am a good person and not all Black boys are bad.” Young man, age 15, Illinois.
- “I want my teacher to know they should teach about Black people, too, because I’m Black.” Girl, age 8, California.
- “That I like to fish when I can practice and I’m a goofball.” Girl, age 3, Illinois.
- “I’m funny, but when I sit next to my friends I talk too much. I am smart in some things but average in others so please don’t put me in every challenging group because I might fall behind.” Young person, age 9, Illinois.
- “That you have to sweet and nice to the kids, because some kids are very sensitive. And you can’t just give kids work, work, work, work. You have to make learning fun.” Girl, age 9, Illinois.
- “She’s a smart and intelligent girl.” Girl, age 11, Arizona.
- “If you see students who are having conflicts a lot with another student, don’t tell them to fix it themselves. Sometimes we kids don’t know how to stop bullies or mean girls by ourselves.” Girl, age 10, Illinois.
- “My teachers are awesome and they make students become well-educated and make sure they go up to the next level of school and they will go to college.” Young woman, age 15, Illinois.
- “That I love my dog so much.” Boy, age 8, Illinois.
- “I hope my teacher knows who the Sharers are.” Boy, age 6, Illinois.
- “Be good at teaching me math.” Girl, age 7, Illinois.
- “Don’t mistake my lack of questions for inactive listening.” Young man, age 17, Maryland.
- “When I’m drawing, I’m still paying attention.” Young man, age 16, Maryland.
- “I am very fun and social, and I like to be helpful and caring. Also, I like to try and learn new thing but might need help. Sometimes I am not sure how to ask for it, so I hope you are listening.” Girl, age 10, Illinois.
As you can see, diverse students are eager to learn at school. But they are more than diverse students, they are individuals, and each one of the students hope that their teachers see, treat and teach them based on their individual personalities and not a pre-set notion of how students of their race, ethnicities, gender, disability or age should be taught.