Know Thy Students: Expect Diversity

“Our understanding of a group remains incomplete when the perspective of either the insider or the outsider is overlooked (Banks, C.A.M., 1996, p 52).” Knowing the group is essential for anyone in teaching because teaching is a two-way relationship. Students must understand their teacher and the teacher must teach to the student understanding. How does one get to know their students? Multicultural education requires a dynamic curriculum that is derived from the interests of the teacher and the interests of their students (Mvududu, 2015). It is true that teachers must continually adapt and change their instruction. Early in my teaching career I had a challenging experience.

I was hired as an after school tutor. Previously, I had worked for a very middle-class and white population of middle and elementary school aged students in a one-on-one environment. Now, I was hired to work in a low-income and racially diverse school. I was to implement after school programming such as yard games and arts activities in addition to homework help. On paper, I was a great fit. In reality, I was not ready to do the work to form a relationship with students that saw this after school program as a holding tank that they had to stay at because their parents could not pick them up. One student in particular expressed this opinion nearly every day. Both a Pacific Islander and a musician, he loved to play a ukulele. I would frequently stop him from playing. I would tell him to put the ukulele away so that he could participate in my activities. “You can’t keep me here,” he would say as he stormed off and ran down the hall away from the gym, where he was supposed to stay. Because it was an after school program and because the school was already understaffed, I could not leave the gym. I had to call for support when this happened. The student was frequently angry. While I tried to treat the student with respect, it became difficult for me to do when he attacked my own identity. “You’re not like me, you wouldn’t understand.” I wanted to understand. But, the barrier that was between us was too difficult to overcome. I gave up and left the position as soon as a replacement could be hired.

Both of us, the student and myself, constructed a meta-narrative about each other. We both had an alien voice for each other. We both made assumptions about whom the other of us was. If we could have challenged our instinctual notions and in turn challenged the metanarrative, just as early African American Scholars did with the story of the Westward Movement (Banks, C.A.M., 1996, p 52), there could have been change; we could have told the whole story, or at least have gotten closer to a full picture of each other. But, the damage of our mutually exclusive meta-narrative was done. We needed our stories to be unpacked. I wanted to help and he wanted to be heard. Sometimes we a set back because of the metanarrative that is given to us; this is the same story that we take as the truth about the world. We must question the metanarrative and ask to hear the voices that are put down just as the voices of the Native Americans were put down and adjusted in the footnotes of history. We, teachers, cannot sideline a student because we do not understand them. This of course crosses racial lines and includes any diversity that a student may bring to the classroom. We cannot make assumptions about the metanarrative they bring to the classroom. We must work to unpack and uncover the multiple narratives that talks about both the minority and majority experience of the student.

I understand from that experience that the job of a teacher is far more than instruction and organizing activities. The job of a teacher is to connect with their students. If I could do it again, I would. I would make more of an attempt to get to know this troubled student. I would ask him open-ended questions. I would share about my own ideas and try to find points of common connection. I would have let him play his ukulele and even lead the group in song. It would have been completely appropriate for the after school program. I bet he would have changed his mind about me. I bet I would have changed my mind about him.

If a teacher constructs a meta-narrative about a student they can become pinned down to that narrative. For me, that student will always be a troubled student that I was unable to reach. If I had implemented a dynamic curriculum that was responsive to the needs and identity of my students, I would have made a positive impact. “Multicultural education, as we’ve seen, supports just that dynamic, curriculum rising in part from the interests and backgrounds of diverse kids (Mvududu, 2015).” We must teach the students that show up in our class and use their cultural assets and interests to instruct them in the content.

Discussing my successes with culturally responsive teaching would be easy. I have now developed a program in my drama classes that demands that students talk about what they know and love. By making my curriculum implicitly responsive to the student interests (by having them create the content) I am forced into a culturally responsive stance. However, I must continually improve. Another recent challenge for me rests in a student that left the school before the year was completed. This student felt alienated; I can only assume the reasons. He is Middle Eastern with a very dark complexion. He looked black to many students and was often confused for African American. He is Muslim; this is a fact I did not learn until after his departure. He was incredibly short and believed that the NBA had a spot waiting for him. He was the last of seven children. Many teachers, including myself, believed that his parents had given up on him. We would have benefited from these wise words, “all families, no matter what their income, race, education, language, or culture, want their children to do well in school – and can make an important contribution to their children’s learning (Mvududu, 2015).” We tried to work with the family; but our work was far too late in the game. I tried, for about a year, to connect with this struggling student. He declined, often, to share details about his life

We cannot reach every student. As teachers, it is impossible to know every student as well as we should. It is an unfortunate numbers game. But, I still put the blame on my plate. I could have spent more time getting to know him and less time “supporting his academics.” I saw him as a struggling student and he stayed a struggling student.

Know THYSELF, linked here.

Know THY SUBJECT, linked here.

Back to Prologue and Epilogue, here.

References:

Banks, C.A.M. (1996). Intellectual Leadership and the Influence of Early African American Scholars on Multicultural Education. In J.A. Banks (Ed.), Multicultural Education: Transformative Knowledge and Action (pp. 46-63). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Mvududu, N. (Director) (2015, May 1). Class Lectures. Diversity in America, Spring Quarter. Lecture conducted from Seattle Pacific University, Seattle.

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