Seeing our students and their families, truly seeing them rather than seeing in them a mirror reflection of ourselves, can be difficult and painful and hard. Some of my students and their families have faced significant trauma and their stories are difficult for me to hear and to understand. Many of my students are first or second generation immigrant from El Salvador and Honduras. Some families left after family members were killed and they were threatened. I’ve read students’ files, documents that are written in formal and clinical ways, and been broken. I know that the amount I know of their stories is small. But it is still enough to break my heart. I can’t ignore what I know. I can’t let it take over, but I need to face it and see their reality. I need to understand their lives outside of school, as that’s the majority of their lives.
I need to know them too. Too often in an elementary school we label children as defiant or unmotivated or hyper. It’s easier to use these words, to identify kids this way, than it is to look more deeply, to see what is making a child seem defiant or hyper or lacking motivation. Seeing our students and truly knowing them takes courage.
Once we truly see our students and their families, we need to build relationships. One thing this requires takes us back a bit – we have to presume positive intentions. The jobs of educators are tough and we often look for reasons why it is so difficult. Families are one reason we can identify. But we need to presume positive intentions and recognize that families want the best for their children and do all they can towards that goal. Architects often use triangles in buildings and bridges because they provide stability and strength. Those two things are useful in buildings and in our students’ lives. The triangle we can create for them consists of us (teachers, administrators, school support staff) as one point, the family as another point, and the student as the final point. Those three working closely together will offer significant stability and strength.
Those relationships will lead to another critical piece, to trusting students and families. Another story from Pam Moran:
“A year ago right after the incredibly difficult white nationalist events in Charlottesville which impacted Albemarle County as well, a student wrote a one-act play about a police shooting of a black teen. I received significant pressure from a variety of sources to not let the drama group at that high school perform the play. It was a social media story, a mainstream media story, and also emails and calls to the Board and me. I made the decision to let the play go forward and it was a rousing success (performed multiple times locally) and ended up generating a local newspaper editorial praising the play as a healing event for the entire community. When I shared Josh St. Still’s story at the NJ supts association state conference, I received a twitter DM from an attendee who wanted Josh to speak at a Ted-like event in NYC. The drama teacher connected with him and this past spring, Josh was flown to NYC to share his story.”
Pam’s willingness to trust this student (and the teachers in his school) led to an experience that benefited so many in her district and beyond. Trust definitely requires courage and trusting students, children, is often extra difficult.
Finally, when it comes to truly seeing our students we have to be willing (and courageous enough) to teach the whole child. Many teachers say they teach English or Biology or third grade. As Chris Lehmann says, “We teach students.” It is easy for content to be king in schools. We have to keep students front and center and this requires that we see them as whole people, not just as readers or mathematicians. As an elementary school teacher it is fairly easy for me to think about the balance between academic learning and growth and social-emotional learning and growth. And if I have to err on one side, I will always lean towards social-emotional learning and growth. Social-emotional learning is essential for all other learning. I know high school students now who are self-harming and suicidal. Unless their teachers are willing to truly see them and to address them and teach them as whole people they will be lost. They won’t gain what they need emotionally or academically. We have to have the courage to fully see our students and to fully teach them.