I’m thinking right now about humility, and about how I can try to look at everyday structures and interactions differently. One piece of teaching toward equity and empowerment for me is finding ways to step back and think deliberately about things that I haven’t thought about before. A few folks have me thinking on that right now.
First, Grace Chen, on Carla Shalaby’s book Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School.
Shalaby shows us how to start this imagining: in describing episodes of behavior, or moments of conflict between child and teacher, she offers explanations so humanizing and child-centered that I was often surprised to admit that the possibility didn’t even occur to me, and whose truth can radically alter an adult’s interpretation of the situation— in the direction of recognizing the child’s dignity. She doesn’t romanticize these children or pity them; she doesn’t dismiss their behavior or excuse it. Rather, she shows what it might be like to take children, for who they are, in all that they are, very seriously.
I need to read this book. In what ways do I not take students, in particular poorly behaved students, seriously? Do I stop to listen to their stories and understand their experiences and their perspective? What might I learn by doing that — by recognizing that my first instinct when a student is goofing off might be wrong, might actually close the door on an opportunity to learn about that student and do right by them?
Next, Danny Bernard Martin:
We have preservice students at University of Illinois Chicago who come in, some, not all, and they say, “I’m here because I love all children” and it’s not true. It’s absolutely not true. And as hard as that may be to hear and to think about and to process there are some of us in this room, despite all of our best intentions, who don’t love all children, and particularly we don’t love some black children for whatever reasons, and those reasons can be found internally. I think one has to come to grips with that. “Why am I here?” Because certainly the children are asking. “Why are you here? What purpose are you going to serve in my life?”
I make mistakes — I get frustrated and react impulsively, letting my frustration get the best of me. In what ways does that frustration come through differently for different students? In what ways do I make assumptions about students based on factors out of their control that influence those quick decisions, day after day? As Martin says, the reasons can be found internally. But I need to be able to stop and look.
Next, Lani Horn:
I think of this Dewey quote from The Moral Principles of Education… “I’m told there is a swimming school in a certain city where youth are taught to swim without going in the water, being repeatedly drilled in various movements that are necessary for swimming. When one of the young men so trained was asked what he did when he got in the water, he laconically replied, ‘sunk.’ This story happens to be true.”
My concern is that I feel like all this uncertainty and contingency is sort of the water that teachers swim in. It is the resistance, it’s the pressure, it’s what might make us drown. So we’ve got to kind of have a way of preparing teachers for that part of the work that they’re doing in addition to the movements and the routines in order to really help them learn to be effective teachers.
A student falls asleep in class, or is tossing something to another student when I turn my back, or doesn’t do their homework. How do I react? That’s my water. Those are the decisions I make every day. And I can make a decision based on what I’ve done before, based on what I see other teachers do, based on what was done to me as a student. Or I can slow down to think about the impact of those decisions on the individual students and reconsider. I want to slow down and make those decisions in ways that humanize every student, that assume that every student arrives to class wanting to learn but perhaps only struggling to figure out how to do that within the unique constraints of my classroom.
Lani Horn, in the talk referenced above, calls this an asset orientation. To me, holding an asset orientation means that I assume every student has potential brilliance inside them, and that I can draw out that brilliance by focusing on what they bring to their classrooms and creating space for their strengths to shine. An asset orientation means focusing on these strengths, rather than framing attributes the student has no control over as deficits, whether those perceived deficits are their past actions, their past academic performance, or the labels school or society has placed on them.
But most of all, holding an asset orientation means being willing to be wrong. It means being willing to step back and think about the water in which we swim, the ways in which I walk into a classroom making assumptions about certain students, the ways in which I react in tough moments differently toward different students.
An asset orientation doesn’t mean being “color-blind” or disregarding the context from which students enter my classroom. Students are also swimming, and knowing the water in which they swim, the lens of privilege and oppression and intersectionality through which students see school and math and learning, is essential in understanding who they are. An asset orientation means recognizing the currents that students are swimming with or swimming against, recognizing that those same currents buffet me, and working despite those currents to see the potential brilliance of every student and give them the tools to work toward that brilliance.