Hello. My name is Charlie and I am the definition of privilege. I come from a pretty well-to-do family, I’m white, I’m straight, I’m male. Check all the boxes.
I have little, if any experience belonging to a “marginalized” group, at least in the U.S. But, I understand this. I get that there are many who didn’t have the opportunities that I have, and still don’t, and I refuse to let that slide, though none of us have much choice over what station we are born into. What we do have choice over is how we use what has a been given to us.
I want to use the gifts that I’ve been given, to help make this world a better place.
What a vague and cliché goal, right?
But that was a huge motivator for my choosing to pursue teaching. It was avery practical way of applying my love for literature and writing to accomplish that goal. Part of what I love about literature, whether I am writing it or reading it, is its ability to shed new light onto perspectives that I am unfamiliar with. I would not be the person I am today had it not been for the books I read, and I would like to think that that is a good thing.
As I move through the Teacher as Ally badge, I am confronted by the harsh reality that I just plain don’t have the experiences that would help me to relate to many of the students I feel most obliged to reach. My heart goes out to the students that didn’t have the opportunities that I have had, and to me that doesn’t matter much unless it leads me to act. So often though, I’m caught not knowing what that means. In order to help someone, I first need to know what that would look like to them. I refuse to do something just to make me feel good about myself. No. I have to teach to my students, their needs, and their futures.
So often, those with the best of intentions end up doing things that decimate the people around them, simply because of a misunderstanding, or a disconnect, between the needs of the one and the other. My concern then, is this: that I will step into the classroom and turn on the mic, step onto the soapbox, and preach to my students without ever understanding them. I do know that it won’t look like that. I imagine that my teaching is going to raise more questions than give answers. In fact, I hope to teach mostly through questions that beg my students to find their own answers.
But will I ask the right questions? Will I call on the students who need to answer, or just the students who raise their hands first, always ready with the “right” answer.
In my school experiences, students rarely (if ever) look like this:
which is the kind of image you’ll most often find if you google image search the word “student.” They’re smiling, deep in their work, engaged in thinking with their classmates, collaborating on work, and they’re all focused. What the heck? In the classrooms I’ve been in, this is much more common:
Bored expression. Not paying attention to the teacher. Heck, I doubt I knew even five students who made it that far in any notebook without half of it being filled with doodles (nothing against doodles, they actually help many people think. But they aren’t notes… so don’t be deceived by how many pages are in her binder).
I also find it interesting, looking at both of these images, the lack of diversity. Almost all the students are at least “passing” white. I doubt any would have been classified as ESL learners, or qualified for free lunch, and none of these students look like the kids I sat next to in the back of class.
C’mon google. I thought you were supposed to unify human experience…
José Vilson, in his book This is Not a Test, has this theory that “[f]or every thirty students, I knew that ten of them would succeed no matter who stood in front of them because of their effort, their intelligence, or both. A critical seventeen of the students could turn the whole class, either doing well if the teacher kept up with them or poorly if the teacher wasn’t prepared. This left three or four students who simply didn’t break through.”
So, that’s only ten percent of the class right? That means he has a good chance of getting a 90%! For those of us who have been students, that is an “A.” An “A-” sure, but still an “A.” But I certainly am no José Vilson (at least not yet). And even if I was, I would be fighting tooth and nail to reach at least one or two of those last three or four students. They’re the ones I’m in that class for! I’ve always had a soft spot for “those kids.”
“But Charlie, the teacher mantra is that ‘if at least one of your students has the opportunities you dreamed of for them, then how could you count ninety percent as a failure?'”
Because allies don’t just fight for their comrades on either side, but for those in the trenches all the way down the line, and those behind them, and the folks back home.
I don’t have any answers. If you do, please share. But even if you don’t, I am going to keep fighting. I don’t have any other option than to admit defeat and wave the white flag. But I will not do that. My allies, the kids in the trenches, the teachers that helped me to get to where I am, and all the other people involved in each of our lives are counting on me to keep fighting. I will not give up. Not even on ten percent. And while I know that there isn’t any real way to keep all of my students where I want them, I won’t let that keep me from trying.
I want my students to do the same for me, and their classmates, and their folks back home.
Edit: José also says in his book, “Teachers try their hardest, but can’t always “save” children from their desperate situations… Teachers are supposed to focus mainly on students’ academic situations. Veteran teachers always advise us to focus on our classrooms; we can’t fight every battle. We have other students who need us at 100 percent as well. Trying to do too much for one student could take away from working for the eighty-nine other students who need our attentions.”
But he goes on to say that that is no excuse not to help the most vulnerable.