Just give me some tools
By Kirsten Robbins, Urban Education Studies Indiana University--IUPUI
It is a common line from teachers, particularly those that work in urban settings. “I just want someone to give me some tools for working with these kids.” And on the surface, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. They are indicating a desire to help students. Early in my teaching career, I uttered that sentence myself. But, a closer look at the sentiment shows that it is not as simple or innocent as it initially appears.
To begin, some background is needed. The majority of teachers (80+ percent) are white and female, while the student population is increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. That often creates an environment in which the teacher feels like they have less and less in common with their students’ backgrounds and cultures. However, most teachers will tell you that they have no biases against their students and that they treat all students equally, and most of those truly believe that is true.
Now we go back to the statement: “I just want someone to give me some tools for working with these kids.” This statement often comes with other statements, which are sometimes said and sometimes only thought. “You know how these kids are,” “Education just isn’t important to the parents of these kids” “I’ve tried everything, and nothing works with these kids.” The intent, the desire to teach kids, is good, but many of the assumptions hiding behind it are not.
One troubling implication that lies beneath the surface of these comments is that the problem lies within these kids. The idea that one needs “tools” suggests that these kids need fixing. These kids are broken. This may not be something that teachers are thinking consciously, but the sentiment may be lurking there nonetheless.
Another problematic piece of these statements is the use of the term “these kids.” This is tricky for a couple of reasons. The first is that it lumps together all the students, despite differences that they may have. Second, the grouping that is done is often around race or class. “These kids” becomes code for “these Black kids” or “these poor kids” or “these Spanish-speaking kids.” In this case assumptions that are being made about the students are becoming tangled up in assumptions the teacher makes about those racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups, whether consciously or not.
Additionally, the assumption is being made that if the students aren’t learning, it is because of who they are. It is the students who are broken, not the teacher. The teacher is looking outward to “solve the problem,” rather than looking inward at the ways in which he or she may be contributing to the difficulties the students are having.
Now, I understand that the first instinct upon reading this will be to deny it. It is difficult for someone to consider that they may be the cause of the issues in their own classroom, rather than the students. It was difficult for me. But when you pass the denial phase, and are still left with questions about how to address the problems in your class, here are my suggestions:
- Reflect. And I don’t mean reflect on your lesson plans or reflect on your instruction. I mean that you need to look inward. Look hard. Ask yourself about what assumptions you are making about your students, about their race, their gender, their home language, their class. Ask yourself what stereotypes you are carrying around with you, hidden and unchecked. Find them. Own them. Begin the work of letting them go. This will be hard. This will be painful. But this will be worth it.
- Get to know your students. Really know them, not just the stuff in their academic file. Ask about their interests, their homes, their cultures, their dreams. Each student is unique, and each student wants to feel noticed and valued for who they are.
- Help your students to reflect. You drag around stereotypes and assumptions (despite all the reflection, they will never totally disappear). Your students are carrying that baggage as well. Create a space for critical conversations in the classroom. Help them to think more about the assumptions they have about each other as well as about you.
These steps aren’t a magical “fix.” Sometimes there will still be fights and students who yell and days when a bunch of kids don’t do their homework. But the impact will still be deep, and you and your students will be changed by it.