I don't cry anymore or have the feeling like I could. I've realized his lately, especially when I've watched or heard sad things that I'm sure would have made me fall into a sad stupor before. It's strange, but I feel like my heart is hardening. And this time, not just the exterior. I mean the whole thing is just hardening. I don't feel compassion in the literal sense of the word: I don't "suffer with" anyone anymore, it seems. In fact, I feel almost nothing. Like a robot with all the answers--or at least a calculated response to things. Like a machine that just carries on to do its job.
I don't delve into the lives of my students anymore, and frankly--oddly--I don't particularly care to. I did in the beginning, but...not anymore. And I know that upon reading this, your eyes have probably narrowed and your brow has raised and you're wondering why this post seems so at odds with everything you'd expect. And you should know that I titled it "Lessons Unplanned" for a reason because I too have been wondering why this experience is so at odds with everything I'd expected.
But I expected a lot of things when I entered this commitment, and probably nine of out ten of those things did not go as planned. This has been an experience unlike any other in that everything I've ever done before now has been done exactly according to plan.
Well, Hello, Real Life, nice to meet you.
I thought upon entering this experience of teaching what we like to "politely" call "underprivileged children" (or "children from low income communities" or "high-risk children" or anything else that places humans with unique lives in very generalized categories) that I was very much aware of my identity as a privileged white girl. In fact, I wrote about it obsessively, and I certainly still stand by the things that I wrote about.
But teaching my kids--the beautiful little souls that fill up my classroom daily--has changed my identity in a profound way. It has changed me almost radically--almost as if it has changed the very makeup of who I am and who I have been all this time.
Before this experience, if you'd asked me to describe myself in three words, I would almost always say these: passionate, ambitious, and compassionate. But I'm replacing "compassionate," now, with something else to be determined when I sort through things.
In the first few months of the school year, there were so many days I'd go home and feel heavy. Some days, I would just lie in bed. Many days, I would just cry. Sometimes it was more like a desperate weeping. Because my kids would tell me things that would break my heart. I would see things that would break my heart. I would think about things that would break my heart.
Nothing has changed in their lives, but I did.
It wasn't that the weight of their problems became too much for me to bear. Indeed, I shed a lot of tears, but still it wasn't that. In fact, when I cried for them, I felt almost ashamed and weak. I wasn't actually crying FOR them. I was crying BECAUSE of them--as if their existence was just too hard on privileged me to witness. Crying because of them wasn't fair. How dare I drive home in and to my privilege, crying on the way and crying there--feeling sorry for these children who deserve better?
No. Because they would come to school the next day and they'd be humans just like me but better because they didn't go home feeling sorry for themselves. They just lived and trudged through--experiencing the range of human emotion and being--just like everyone else. And who was I to feel sorry for them when their very lives gave them the resiliency to keep going every single day? Just waking up means that despite ANY hardship they experience, they have a relentless hope and strength I couldn't even fathom rivaling.
They are incredible.
Incredible means "impossible to believe." And they are. To so many people. It really is nearly impossible to believe that people who experience the hardship they do can rise every morning and be excellent when I demand for them to be excellent.
The default stance is that "those" people already have a story written for them. Well, they don't. They wake up every day to write their story until society closes the book on them or takes the pen out of their hands. They don't choose to fail. And if it seems like they do choose failure, it's really that they just don't even know their own greatness. Consider it humility to a fault.
They are my teachers. They are the wake-up call I've needed since I was born into my privileged existence. Feeling sad and sorry, I have learned, is absolutely useless. Feeling sad and sorry sapped me of the energy I needed to be something useful. I don't delve into the lives of my kids because it doesn't matter the way we might think it does. Being their shoulder to cry on, I've decided, is not the role I'm best at playing, nor is it the role I want to play. Sure, when they talk, I listen. But I don't pry. My duty is to be for them what I know I can be: someone who loves them so much I'll look past their pains and push them to reach greatness because they've proven, just by living, that they CAN.
If we’re going to discuss education, we cannot leave out the family. Students are children first, which means they aren’t born in a classroom, they’re born into families. The family forms the first environment in which a young child develops.
One of my dearly beloved professors and I have wonderful debates on a weekly basis about social justice and education—because I make him have these debates with me, and he kindly obliges (probably secretly rolling his eyes when I walk through the door).
In my last post, I discussed the issue of teacher quality and the lack of strategies established at the state and federal level to consistently recruit, teach and develop excellent educators. But my professor decided to rail me in our discussion, insisting that, essentially, teachers are only half the story. Parents, he fervently asserted, parents are part of, if not the root of, the reason for students’ lack of achievement.
While there is no doubt evidence that family environments have a crucial impact on a child’s cognitive and non-cognitive development, I think a concerted and genuine effort to bridge the gap between parents and educators can help to mitigate the challenges that parents and children from lower-income communities face.
This requires incorporating social justice classes into teacher education, first and foremost.
What often happens among white, middle class teachers is the otherization of parents from lower classes. This kind of otherization is, I believe, the result of a grave misunderstanding—a misunderstanding that is rooted in the fallacious meritocratic theory of success. When teachers harbor this kind of misconception of the “other,” i.e. parents from lower classes, they not only marginalize those parents further but they also maintain an ideology within the classroom that marginalizes those parents’ children.
There is a serious and detrimental lack of cultural synchronization between teacher and child, and teacher and parent.
Too often parents are dismissed as negligent or are perceived as not caring about their child’s success. This kind of assertion teems with misunderstanding and prejudice.
For parents from the working class, caring about their child’s academic success—whether they’re doing well on tests, turning in their homeworking, behaving in class as the teacher demands, learning the essentials—is often not feasible in the way many educators would like. Not all parents have the time to check their child’s homework, study with their children for their tests, or give them a quiet room in which they can do their work. Many of these parents work multiple jobs, work the night shift, and/or just don’t have the resources.
Furthermore, too many parents—especially those that come from lower-income communities—don’t understand the inherent value of school because they didn’t experience it. Many parents’ aspirations for their children are to land a job out of high school so they can contribute to the family income. Too many parents have been jaded by the system that has oppressed them—a system that is so ingrained into the fabric of American life that they don’t even think to fight it.
The issue is so much bigger than just parents. I would venture to say that a tiny fraction of parents actually don’t care about their children. The majority just doesn’t have the time, the resources, or the hope that education will be their ticket out of poverty.
The bigger issue—and the issue that future and current teachers alike absolutely must understand—is that our country and the institutional and social structures that comprise it are riddled with racism and classism, which ensures that people of color and the poor are locked out of middle class privileges.
If our teachers learn only pedagogical methods in school and fail to learn and comprehend the social workings of this country (which seems like the very thing a school in conservative Oklahoma would leave out) then they are only half qualified (if even) for the profession.
We cannot blame the oppressed for their own oppression.