Remember that feeling that you always had growing up, of knowing you knew the answer but letting someone else tell you that you are wrong? Remember those times when you spoke up and said something brilliant and everyone was shocked? Remember that shame that you felt when someone spoke at you a little too loudly or over-enunciated using hand gestures when communicating with you and your family? Remember the time that you bought flowers for your boyfriend’s mom for her birthday and then took your siblings to lunch and the manager at McDonald’s yelled at you that “you guys can’t sell those in here? I am guessing that if you are white, you probably have not experienced many of these actual experiences that I have undergone throughout my life. And there were so many more, and there will always continue to be so many more because people will always judge me first on what they think I am as opposed to treating me as a human first and letting their perception of me form thereafter.
I see this in our schools every day. Teachers who have no idea what it is like to be X assume that
a) they do know what it’s like to be X
b) the knowledge of them as Y gives them knowledge about their student as X
c) all X students are losers whose families don’t value education
d) there is a certain way that you deal with X students
e) I, as a Y was able to do it, so you, as an X should be able to do it
Doesn’t this seem so stupid when we put in these stand-in variables that could be anything? Like, why would anyone who is Y purport to think that they could understand what it is like to be X? This is funny because in the objective algebraic world, Y does not equal X and Y and X can stand for anything, they can change from one problem to the next; in short, being Y is not better than being X and in every single problem, in every single situation, you need to figure out what X is before you going making any assumptions about the value of X.
So, what do variables have to do with race? I would argue that most teachers come to their students with this idea that I am Y most of my students are X and therefore they cannot do Q, except for those students that come from homes that teach them to be Y’s. Again, going back to my algebra analogy, wouldn’t it make more sense to figure out what X is all about before you start making assumptions about what x can do—what its value is?
I believe that all people are genuinely good at heart, and I believe students genuinely want to learn. I do believe that there are those students that you just won’t be able to reach, but I also think there are maybe like 2-5 per class, not half a class. Unfortunately I often see classes where half of the class is failing and I just think that is unacceptable. There can’t be that many unreachables in your class. And also, how many of those unreachables are a difference color and gender than you? And so, I believe that the key is to treat every student that comes into your care as his or her own special variable that you need to figure out, get to know, understand. And, treating them them like both of you are kind, decent people is the way to solve the problem that gets you the answer to the variable. And don’t say that you don’t see differences between Y and X. There should be differences between Y and X. To say there aren’t invalidates X’s X-iness! And also, none of your students buys it for a second that you don’t see difference between them and you—X will not become more like a Y just because Y says it doesn’t believe in variables.
Ultimately, I believe that all educators would agree with the following suggestions that a) they should get to know the individual needs of all their students b) they should treat their students as people (aka, how you want to be treated—with respect, in a way that keeps your dignity in tact) c) they teach with compassion d) they teach with a realization that not all students perform at the same level and some will need lots of extra help. But I truly wonder how teachers actually put these beliefs into practice in their classrooms. How many educators say hurtful things, if not in class to their students, then behind their backs to their colleagues? Yes, I know that our students frustrate us every day. Yes, I know that they sass us and disrupt. These are not behaviors to condone, but we need to have more awareness of why they are doing what they are doing. And always remember, that is someone’s baby—that child probably has an aunt or uncle who is a teacher who doesn’t want you mistreating them and punishing them through shame and ridicule. I say, treat your students as though they are your nieces and nephews—stern but loving.
I would venture to guess that most of the teachers who are Y’s do not know that they are Y’s nor that they treat their students as X. At this point, I would like to ask all educators to reflect on their practice. Start by asking yourself—are the vast majority of my students learning in and passing my class? If not, ask yourself why you think that is. As a teacher, this should be your ultimate objective and if you have 30%, 50% even 80% of your students failing, you really need to look deeply at your practice and at your belief systems and see if you aren’t a Y who sees your students as an X. And if you come to realize that you are, that’s okay. You aren’t an immoral person who is going to teacher hell (you probably already feel like you’re there anyway, and I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way). I have been there. There are some days when I still come back to being a Y. This whole business of (I know, you’re going to scoff) cultural relevance and cultural sensitivity is not a science—it’s a continuum of practice, reflection, compassion, and growth—just like all teaching should be.
So, what I posit is that we all foster an effective learning environment with discipline and dignity. Here are some suggestions for doing just that:
Have a well-thought out classroom management plan in place and stick to it; this will make sure you are seen as fair and that certain kids don’t feel like they are being called out. How many times have you been in a class where everyone is talking and off task, but the loudest kid, and probably the most striking, either because of his attire or color, gets the punishment. That child usually gets indignant, understanding that an injustice really has been perpetrated against him, since, basically, he got called out for being the most X. If you have an effective management plan, this can be avoided. Start by having the entire class get quiet before you go on. If and then that one child keeps at it, check in with him quietly, let him know you need to see him after class, and talk then about how he was breaking the norms that you really need in order to be able to teach him as best you can. Trust me, the kids don’t respect you any more just for being mean.
Understand the difference between cultural behavior and malicious behavior.
Discipline before you are angry
Decide what is really really important to you that you are going to enforce
Use the interactive lecture or I do, we do, you do class structure to minimize day dreaming and idle time during which kids can get in trouble—when kids work independently for longs period of time and it’s not a test, I rarely see a majority working.
Make class a fun/ safe/ inclusive/ inviting place where student will want to be; it should be a punishment to be sent out.
Have your first or second consequence be contacting parents.
Allow kids to earn the ability to get out of a punishment by exhibiting preferred behaviors after the consequence has been doled.
Keep students in for mini-consequence-conferences at lunch.
Use proximity to maintain a positive environment.
Don’t use eye contact with all kids as many actually see that as a threat in their culture.
When you want a kid to do something, like pick up something they “dropped” on the ground, start with, “Can you do me a favor…”
Remember, it’s all about allowing someone to change their behavior and keep their dignity in tact.