People have always told me that I have the gift of encouragement, and I do believe that to be true. Sometimes that means sharing a positive, feel good truth about someone else. For example, I've always given compliments easily and they come from a true and authentic place. But sometimes that means my place is to encourage others to grow and change. That doesn't always feel as good, but it is a necessary part of our development as human beings if we want to grow.
Today I want to encourage you to think about race and what role it might be playing in your classroom dynamics. I know this is an uncomfortable topic, but it's possible that race is affecting how you teach and how students receive from you.
I will use myself as an example. I am a white female, middle class. I have the privilege of seeing myself represented in this country in a positive manner. I see others who look like me and sound like me on TV, in books and movies. I also see others like myself doing well in schools, teaching and even in leadership as principals, coordinators, etc.
But not all of our students have this privilege. Some students do not see themselves represented at all, or if they do appear in media, it is through negative stereotypes. In fact, as World Language teachers, some of you might feel marginalized if you are here from a different country or background, if you have an accent or are still learning English. Sometimes in classrooms, students of color, students who struggle financially, or English Language Learners are marginalized and quieted. While we are a loving, well-intentioned group of teachers, we all hold implicit biases. What does that mean? "Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner" (Kirwin Institute for more info click here).
Last week I had the privilege of attending a workshop on equity. As part of our preparation, we were asked to watch a TED Talk by Verna Myers, called "How to Overcome Biases? Walk Boldly Toward Them". Click HERE to watch.
Those of you who know me well, know that I love TED Talks, and this one is no exception. Ms. Myers challenges us to stop pretending that we are color blind, and instead to actually look at race and consider how it might be affecting us. As teachers, I believe we must do this work. It is not easy to examine ourselves, but it is worth it. This video gets a little personal for me because she is talking specifically about black males and how the media has helped to create a negative bias toward them in our country. My son happens to be black, and so I have been forced to consider how this might affect him both now and in the future. I believe that we will all face challenges in this life, but as a momma, I can't help but want to minimize some of the negativity that I know he will face. Will you walk with me on this journey? As I confront my own implicit biases and begin to move toward them in order to make change, will you do the same?
Guestblogger: Ann-Marie Cormier-Bausch, LHS
“You are the only teacher who acts like you like us.”
A student said this to me in class a few years ago. True story. While this statement made me melt inside, it made me sad too. My classroom is my happy place and I truly love my job. But I know not all teachers feel the same way I do, and the students notice.
It took a long time for me to regard this as my happy place. I begrudgingly forced myself back to “the grind” year after year, longing to be anywhere but in the classroom. I wasn’t even very passionate about my subject area. The only reason I kept coming back were the students.
Teenagers are fun. They are witty, creative, inquisitive, passionate, silly, and totally unpredictable. Once I figured out that my relationship with them was the key to my happiness, my role as a teacher changed completely and I fell totally in love with the profession because of them. I am not sure when this happened. There was no “aha!” moment and if someone had tried to explain this years ago I’m not sure I would have believed it. I had become so focused on curriculum and objectives that I had lost sight of the most important element of my professional existence: teenagers.
Yes, they have pimples, they wear too much make-up, their voices squeak, they are awkward and sensitive, they smell bad sometimes, they stay up too late, they say inappropriate things, they test the boundaries. But they make me laugh everyday.
We all know that high-school teacher who constantly complains about the students. Why would you come to a building everyday that is FULL of teenagers if you don’t like them? Seems crazy to me now, but I did it for years and my students noticed. A few changes in my behavior helped improve my relationship with the students, which led me to my current happy place. Maybe these changes can help you find your happy place too.
Connect with them personally.
On the first day of class have the students write privately about themselves. Most teachers do this in some way, but what we do with that information is critical in making connections with them personally. Make note of at least one thing you have in common with every student and read it in class the second day. It can be a simple fact like “Emma, you and I have the same birthday!” or “Joe, you like the Steelers? Me too!” They may shrug it off at first but, if the Steelers win, you will hear about it. By valuing the student’s individuality, you have a good chance of increasing engagement in class.
Use the information you learn from the students in the lesson. Alex plays lacrosse so use his name and sport in an example. Alex gets validation that you were listening and you care. Simple, but effective.
Getting to really know the students pays off in so many ways over the semester or year. Go to their games, their art shows, and their dance recitals. Eat at the restaurant where they work and ask for them to be your waiter. Let them show you who they are besides your student. The iPad they left in your room? Take it to them in their next class. It really does matter to them. Teenagers who feel that you care about them will be much more receptive to your requests and tons more respectful of you as a teacher. Bonus: students who feel valued by you will be more willing to take risks for you, and we know how essential this is to the learning process.
Give out compliments freely but sincerely.
You may not expect it, but the teenagers in your class are starving for approval. Give it to them! No matter how much attitude Janie has given you lately, compliment her sincerely on anything that matters to her and you will make great strides in winning her over. They love to hear you compliment their hair or shoes, but they also love it when you know the score of their game last night and that you heard they played well. Read the announcements and be able to mention some of the amazing things they do when they are not disrupting your class, like being a part of a club or group, participating in a talent show, making the honor roll, or winning a pageant. Compliments are easy to give, and show you are paying attention to them as members of society. As teenagers, this is a new role for them and your compliments will show them you care about how they are fulfilling that role.
Give them choices.
Offering options to teenagers gives them a feeling of power, something of which they really have very little in their new roles as members of society. You must remember how, as a teenager, each new tiny bit of freedom was exhilarating. Tap into this! Allow them to feel like they have some control over their learning. There are lots of ways to do this if you step back and think about it. It doesn’t have to mean more work for you. In high school, we have some flexibility in the curriculum to allow for student input. Would you rather read about the death penalty or euthanasia? Would you rather give your opinions in writing this time or orally? With some well-planned sneaky questioning during a recent brainstorming session, I was able to lead the students to “choose” the next topic of discussion (for which I had already found my sources and planned my assessments). It didn’t matter—the important thing was that they believed they were mapping their own learning and that made all the difference in the world.
Ask their opinion about a completed unit or activity. Did you like doing it that way? Would you have preferred doing it this way instead? Should I do this again with my next group? Was this a worthwhile activity? You’ll be surprised by the maturity in the answers you get. Most teenagers don’t want to waste their time in class and they will be brutally honest if that lesson you spent hours planning was a total flop. Listen to them and take their feedback seriously. You will earn their respect quickly if you are sincere.
It is always fun to shake up routine with options as well. Let them arrange the classroom for a change (teenagers love this). Have them design an order for the day’s agenda. Offer two possible due dates for an assessment. Little things that won’t really be a big deal in the end will make them feel like their lives are important to you.
My mother once told me that the fastest way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. It’s the same for teenagers. Feed them and they will love you unconditionally. Connect the food to your curriculum and your administration will tolerate it. A good bit of my yearly teacher supply supplement goes to morning croissants, pizza parties, and salsa-tasting activities. I keep a drawer full of granola bars for the chronic breakfast skipper and a few healthy drinks for upset stomachs and headaches. Their diet is not my responsibility but it shows I care about them as a whole person and not just their learning or lack thereof. Food brings people together, breaks down barriers, and promotes conversations. Isn’t that what teaching is all about?
Adolescence is a magical time. Revel in it. Engage, nurture, honor and listen to your students first, then worry about the teaching. It’s time to turn those trenches into your own happy place.
World Language Teacher Support Specialist (and Language Enthusiast)