In writing about the NFL players protests recently I was thinking about how difficult it often is for us, as human beings, to see beyond our own lived experiences. It is a challenge to recognize, much less understand, how different someone else’s experience can be. It requires genuine effort and care to do so and especially to do so well.
Those thoughts came back to me in my classroom this week and I realized how guilty I’ve been of doing the same thing with my students over the years (far less so in recent years, I believe, but there are a lot of years on which to reflect). For a very long time I projected onto my students reasons for behavior that I understood and knew. When they were not sitting still or making annoying noises or clicking their fingers together even after I’d asked them not to again and again and again, I was sure they were doing it to get to me. I assumed students were behaving in certain ways to get attention, to annoy adults, or to manipulate others. Those are things adults (and quite possibly older students) do. But elementary students are not miniature adults. They are young children who are still learning to control themselves in various ways and to understand all of our social norms. It’s far more likely they are not sitting still or making annoying noises or clicking their fingers together because they can’t help it and, most likely, don’t even realize they are doing it. I spent many years punishing or chastising children for not behaving as my lived experience suggested they should.
I also know I committed the same sin in the exact opposite direction. I didn’t take my lived experience into account when considering how I treated my students. I required behavior or work from students that would seriously irritate me if requested by my boss. I talked to students in ways that I would never accept from others. As the adult, the one who has more lived experience than anyone else in the classroom, there are certain things I’m willing to accept about the power I hold. However, my students are human beings who should be treated with respect. I’m far better now at imagining myself in their shoes and questioning whether or not my behavior is reasonable. I feel for those classes I taught before I came to this realization.
Our lived experiences have power. That power can be positive or negative, mostly depending on whether or not we are conscious of how our lived experiences are impacting us.