Teachers must change how they think about teaching

Last month The Atlantic published an article by Amanda Machado, entitled: Why Teachers of Color Quit, which she followed up with an interview segment on NPR. In the article and interview, Machado outlines the three reasons she walked away from the profession of teaching: a lack of cultural sensitivity by teachers and administrators, the pressure she felt to push her students out of the harsh economic and social realities they faced, and an overall lack of “prestige” and economic empowerment within the profession.

As an adjunct faculty member of a Dallas community college, I can understand the latter points (though “prestige” should be the last thing on anyone’s mind when they enter the field of teaching), but I cannot fully argue Machado’s perspective on the first. I am not in a position to debate the racial difficulties she faced while teaching, nor would I disagree with a personal perspective on such experiences. But Machado also contends that the socioeconomic challenges her students faced ultimately put her in an untenable position. She says she was more connected to her students due to socioeconomic and racial understandings, and because of that, she could not handle the pressure of trying to educate these students that had the odds stacked against them from the beginning. But this is a difficulty that many teachers face – it is a difficulty to educate, connect to, and empower students, showing them they must work harder than others if they want to succeed. The main purpose of a teacher is to motivate and reach their students even when the aspect of learning seems secondary in importance. And because of this, we must not give up on the profession due to its inherent difficulties and beneficial insufficiencies.

 

Get into the trenches

 

Analogies are at the heart of teaching, so using an analogy, one where society is a sporting event and teachers are key players, what position do teachers play? In football, I would argue teachers are the offensive linemen: they don’t get paid enough, they take a beating on every play, and they are overlooked when kids talk about their favorite players in society. But offensive linemen are the ones that push back against an opposition that’s determined to stop the team’s progress. Offensive linemen form a protective shield around the leader of the team and pick the quarterback up when he or she gets dragged to the ground. And when the team finally scores, when the camera captures the wide receivers, running back and quarterback celebrating in the end zone, the offensive linemen are lumbering down the field in celebration. Offensive linemen will certainly never receive the admiration or “prestige” that quarterbacks garner, but without them the opportunity to succeed would not exist. Every student should be defended with a team mentality.

As teachers, we need to stop setting an example of self-importance. Do teachers need to be paid more? Yes, absolutely. Is the profession of teaching viewed as a more celebrated position in some countries? It is. But under the current system in the United States, every teacher knows what the benefits will be. When teachers walk into their classrooms for the first time, many of them will miscalculate the emotional, physical, and professional commitments required to be a truly successful teacher, but teaching is not about the teacher, it is about the thousands of future quarterbacks, lawyers, plumbers, policemen, secretaries, and college applicants that sit before us, and it is our job to drag, push, and pull them across the goal line at any cost. Teaching is a battle against the realities our students face, and we must not quite because the position is only o-kay.

 

Reality will walk into the classroom

 

One of the most difficult hurdles to overcome as a teacher of low-income students is the reality of circumstance. According to a survey conducted by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University, 59% of students entering community colleges take developmental math classes while 33% take developmental English, just like the one I teach. The cross-section of students in my classes is incredibly diverse: there are white students, black students, Asian students, international students, ESL students, low-income students; students that dropped out of high school and students with learning disabilities. When I look out at this pool of diversity, my own background and ethnicity becomes nearly irrelevant – the one similarity these students share, and which I completely understand, is a fear of writing (they may still not fully grasp the uphill battle they face to complete community college). It is my responsibility, my job, to connect with all of these students in any way possible and to let them know that I am standing before them for one reason only: to help them succeed.

In Why Teachers of Color Quite, Machado expresses her belief that she could not bear the emotional toll of teaching low-income students because she understood their background better than other teachers. But Machado miscalculates the level of empathy, perspective, and respect all teachers can have for students, whether they look like them, have the same religion as them, came from the same neighborhood as them, have the same interests as them, or not. The power of human peace, outrage, hope, and fear are vast and deep, and I do not know a teacher that is unaware, unconcerned, and flat out fearful of the realities students face if they do not succeed in school. If the CCRC research is accurate, only one-fourth of my students will go on to earn a degree, and I am deeply and unnervingly aware of this every time I enter grades at the end of the semester. The questions “Did I do all I could do?” and “Was there anything more I could have done to connect with them?” follows me around everywhere I go, and every student I have ever taught stands next to the most pressing memories I hold. Teaching is a profession you carry with you, and if you are not willing to feel for the student or live with the realities that both your and their failures might bring, many other professions provide alternative complications and benefits, many of which are just as important as teaching.

 

Be Willing to Learn New Things

 

If a person is going to embark on a career as a teacher, he or she must be willing to learn from students as readily as students are expected to learn from their teachers. The most unexpected connections with my students have evolved from the questions of “What can you tell me about yourself?” and “In a world where we label everything, what defines you as a person?” The responses are as disparate as the backgrounds students carry into the classroom with them, and even students who appear to rise from similar circumstances are unique in the measure of how such experiences affect them, how they deal with it, and how their mindsets affect how they are, or are not, willing to work in the classroom.

During my first semester of teaching, I had a student from Africa that sat in the corner of the classroom and did not say a word, even with the prodding I offered, the entire first week. Always early, always prepared for class and willing to write, I was unaware that such a student could write so eloquently, yet have such a hard time speaking English fluently. This should be attributed to my own naivety of the students that awaited me, as well as the ancillary tasks and projects I would need to work on with students (many of which were not in the job description). I sat down with this student after class at the beginning of the second week and asked him to tell me about himself, then to write about himself (expounding upon the exercise I have my students complete on the first day of class). Just through individualized time he began to open up and explain the circumstances that brought him to the United States, his interest in Math, his fear of writing, and that he was from the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire…the Ivory Coast. At the time, I knew nothing about the Ivory Coast. I sat their searching my brain for the remotest of connections, and suddenly it hit me and I just blurted out, “Didier Drogba.” For the first time the student grinned and offered a flicker of emotion that had been kept in strict confinement up until that point. Suddenly he wanted to write about a multitude of issues his native country faced, and it reminded me of writing’s main objective: giving people a voice.

The lessons teaching has taught me are endless. From understanding that each one of my students face different difficulties, obstacles, insecurities, and potential pitfalls, each semester I learn how to become a better teacher through my experiences with my students. It is a job that is hopeful, heartbreaking, and humbling. I want all of my students to eventually go on to overachieve – perhaps some of them will even accomplish quite prestigious careers – but I would not fault any of them for becoming teachers. They could teach others from different backgrounds, learn a thing or two from others that are different from them in the process, and what is the purpose of our societies, communities, and relationships if we are not trying to make deeper connections that promote understanding and an appreciation for learning?

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