Today at an activity at my school for ALANA (Asian, Latino, African American, Native American) staff, we discussed our best and worst teachers. My best, favorite teachers immediately came to mind - I've mentioned them in previous blogs: Mr.Hansbury (high school social studies), Madame Christian (high school French), Monsieur Tetart (college, art history), Mrs.Edwards (1st grade), just to name some of them. Here's what they all had in common: they were empathetic, they were firm but very kind, they had high expectations without making me feel I couldn't reach those expectations, and they bothered to learn about me, to know me. They took that extra step to find out about my background, to appreciate it, to build on the knowledge I brought to the class. In addition, they did not try to change the shy, introverted person I was (yes, I once was!) but they accepted me for who I was. They knew my story.
Knowing a student's story can change everything. Imagine this: a Latino middle school student, hangs out with other students who keep getting into trouble for little things in school, often wears a hat in a setting where it's against the rules, seems resistant to adult direction, and smiles a smirky smile when people question him. A teacher gets frustrated with him because he has to remind him to take his hat off over and over. Another teacher can't understand why he hangs out with a group of misbehaving kids.
Then imagine that we find out this student's backstory Let's say we find out that he grew up with a relative, not his parents, in a Central American country where boys as young as 7 and 8 are being recruited into gangs. The gangs create a sense of belonging; after all, the student's mother has left him behind, off to the US to find work and send money home. Eventually, the student's mother sends for him. He makes the long trek to El Norte, with other teenage boys, riding on the tops of unsafe trains, risking being robbed, beaten, or worse. He makes it over the border after several tries, only then he has to spend a month in an immigration detention center with thousands of other teenage or younger Central American boys. Finally, he is reunited with his mother. It is a bittersweet moment; while happy to be with his mother as he had pictured in his mind for years, he is heartbroken to be separated from his relative, who raised him. There are other changes. Suddenly he has to follow new rules - the rules set by his mom. More freedom, yet less at the same time. He misses his relative and knows he may never get to see her again.
Registered in school, he must learn this difficult new language, and yet he doesn't read or write well in Spanish. Everything is hard, everything is new. Yet, he goes to school every day, never missing a day unless he really has to. He tries to sustain his attention all day; he tries to understand, to follow along, to understand the new rules. School is very different - it is way more serious, the days are longer, and there is a lot of homework. All the effort he makes is for his relative back home - he wants to make her proud. But, he gets angry quickly, he feels dumb and inadequate. He stays out too late at night, avoiding home and the new, strict rules. He is tired at school.
Would knowing this student's story change how teachers respond to him? Would they try to be more positive with him, encouraging him to do well and do right by his relative? Would they guide and coax instead of yell at him? Would they de-escalate situations with him, instead call him out for small infractions?
As teachers in the US we are often overwhelmed and overburdened with work. Paperwork, planning, meetings, grading, IEPs, differentiating, parent communication, student clubs and activities and so on. Still, I would argue that getting to know our students is one of the most important aspects of what we do and that we need to make time for it. Easy for me to say with my 8 person class, right? But any way to learn about our students in any amount is useful and helpful, and will give us more leverage, hopefully, with our students. Do what you can, however you can. Learn as many stories as you can, and then share those stories with other teachers. Create empathy and understanding.