Right now our schools are closed and we are facing a national crisis that is exposing inequities in education like never before. Teachers are struggling to maintain relationships and engage students. Students are struggling to find the motivation and the resources to succeed. When this pandemic is over, schools will have to rebuild their communities, their relationships and readjust their expectations. To successfully rebuild authentic relationships, we must recognize the role race plays in our society, in our schools and in ourselves. And we must know how to talk about it.
At the beginning of the year, I asked my students - a group of 7th and 8th graders - to write about their bilingualism. Given that I teach English as a Second Language, I was expecting all of my students to dive easily into the activity. My students, however, sat in silence. After a few moments, one student shyly raised his hand and said, “Miss, I am not bilingual.” I asked him to tell me more. He replied, “I can’t read in Spanish and English is my worst subject…I am not bilingual.” Other students in the room nodded in agreement. The students who most vehemently agreed were those who were born in the United States.
Right now, it is more important than ever that we maintain open communication with our students and their families. I will admit that calling the parents and guardians of my students is a challenge for me. It’s not that I don’t want to. Honestly, once it’s over I’m always glad that I did. Maintaining open communication with parents is essential to meeting a student’s needs, to understanding where they’re coming from and what kind of support they need. But just getting on the phone with someone that I don’t know makes my heart race.
A few months ago, scrolling through Twitter, I saw a post from former Minnesota Teacher of the Year (and great Twitter follow), Tom Rademacher, highlighting a Facebook post (it’s always a Facebook post!) in which an educator was advocating for a routine for connecting with “difficult” students - that routine is to commit with that student for a 60-second hug.
I drove down the end of my street a few weeks ago, and I looked ahead to see a bunch of lanky, awkward middle school students waiting for their bus. As I slowly got closer and closer to the group of students, I began reminiscing on my own bus stop experience. The merger of the bus stop brought so many different kids together who wouldn’t always mix by choice, so it was always a time that was a bit uncomfortable for me growing up, particularly because I was forced to congregate with one particular kid who would be legally classified as a bully in today’s world. Although he never bullied me specifically, I remember the brutal uncomfortable moments in which all of us at the bus stop had to navigate those cruel words often directed at the younger kid who didn’t quite fit in or know how to defend himself.
Every day, students across the country attend school, where they are expected to perform to their best abilities. There are clear standards for what constitutes the “best,” and that often leaves children who are struggling with emotional regulation or the impacts of trauma behind. How to help these students who are clearly struggling with emotional regulation and executive functioning skills remains a challenge even for the best teachers. Often, these students are labeled as “disruptive,” “bullies,” or “behavioral problems”. In reality, these students are searching for stronger connections and meaning without knowing the best strategies to find them. Even if only a small portion of the student body has experienced trauma, the entire school will be impacted by the effects. For this reason, it is important that a trauma-informed school takes a school-wide, collaborative approach.
Leaders from Rumi to Grace Lee Boggs to Whitney Houston have all reminded us that we can’t achieve love, liberation, or transformation externally without first loving, liberating, and transforming ourselves. We have to start by looking in the mirror, loving ourselves, and being the change we wish to see in the world.
We are in the business of cultivating successful people. In order to do this, we must put each student first every single day to ensure that their human needs are met by truly knowing each and everyone of them. Student success cannot happen without a strong teacher-student relationship, and at the core of this relationship, is trust. Students who have trust in their educator show greater confidence in themselves, stronger student engagement, and exhibit greater achievement. Trust, or relational trust in education parlance, is built over time through interactions and experiences. Therefore, it is imperative we create relationships from the very first moment of the first day of school.
Excerpt: There are so many innovative ways that, as a team, [teachers and counselors] can plan how to collaborate. What would this look like? It could look like...a Counselor in your room for one period a day, rotating homerooms throughout the week, solely checking for executive functioning skill development which has been pre-planned into your content curriculum. It could look like a Counselor in the classroom as the teacher is teaching, and if a student has a meltdown or issue, the Counselor can attempt to address it within the classroom, or physically close to the classroom, in order to decrease out of classroom time for students.
When we as teachers teach by example, our students become more engaged and can witness the process at work. This simple assignment, meant to stretch my students, also challenged me. I reflected on my practice, and it helped our school level biases. When students have the agency to problem solve, it also opens the doors for us as teachers to lend to the process. When we think about the many ways to impact change in the daily educational experience, we often forget those voices who are being educated. When asked, my students thought critically about change and learned how to advocate in the process. Their voices were valuable in the conversation to improve education, instructional procedures, and operations.