I am a white teacher in a very diverse school. In fact, it is the most diverse school in the state of Oregon. 43 different home languages are represented. 60% of our students are current or exited ELLs.  Our largest ethnicity representation is 38% Hispanic, but the rest are all pretty evenly represented. We are a Title 1 school, meaning over 82% of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch services. At any given time between 15-25% of our students are Title X (homeless). Our children experience significantly higher levels of chronic trauma, food insecurity, upheaval, and transience.

As to our teaching staff; we are, with the exception of two teachers, white. Our students do not see themselves in us and that is heartbreaking.

As a white female teacher, I represent the dominant white culture and all its trappings. I represent dominance. I represent oppression. I am housed in the physical representation of the oppressor.  Yes, I am complaining and as a white person, right now, I am uncomfortable with my complaint. At the same time it needs to be said. This sucks. It sucks for all of us, but most of all for our students. They are being deprived a privilege our white students have enjoyed forever – seeing themselves embodied in positions of power and prestige. When we can see ourselves in others, we can relate, we can aspire, we can become. We can also learn.

So, as a well-meaning white teacher, I am walking a mine-field every day in our school. I have much to overcome and make up for in my interactions with our students of color. I understand that that is my job. That it is on me to bridge the divide and to work doubly hard to create trust and connection for our students of color, but man it can be exhausting. It is a hard slog and one that is full of land mines. These include but are not limited to my own biases, my expectations being expectations that are of the white dominant culture, my expectations of my students’ abilities and backgrounds, my discomfort with language barriers, my assumptions, and my need for white homogenous imposed order on a diverse and multi-layered student population.

How does one balance the need for order with the need for beautiful chaos? How does one balance high expectations with the realities of our students’ lives? How does one adapt to this shifting landscape of understanding, privilege, expectations, and oppression?

One teaching and learning moment at a time. One conversation at a time. One student at a time. We build on our small wins. We accept ourselves and recognize that our learning is never really done. We are learners and that is okay.

White Teacher Problems

The Beauty of Not Knowing

Hello Friends,

Sage upon the stage. Teacher. Educator. As I stand in front of the class, demanding that all eyes rest on me, that all mouths remain closed, that all hands are at rest, that all ears and minds are open to my words; I discount the importance of being human. Of being frail. Of not knowing. We are taught to be authorities in our subject. We are supposed to be the one person in the room with all the answers.

In actuality,  a truly masterful teacher recognizes that they know very little actually. A great teacher models for her students all the time the great liberation of, not knowing. Not knowing is really what learning is all about. We learn to accept we do not have all the answers. We learn to question not just others, but ourselves. I teach language arts. I have a degree in English. I have read thousands and thousands of books. But guess what, I use my dictionary in class all the time. I make spelling mistakes, intentionally. I ask students for the right way to phrase a sentence. I model for them the freedom that can come with not knowing the answer. I model that not knowing something is okay. That asking for help is okay. That figuring something out with others is okay.

There are many ways to help your students learn to be okay about not knowing something. Using growth mindset language and perspective can be helpful. As can screwing up in front of them. What methods have you used to help your students build the capacity to comfortably, not know something?

Be Brave,

S

Snow Days: Five Ways to Rebuild Classroom Community

Hello Friends,

Snow Days. Teachers, in general, love them. I don’t. I mean sure, the occasional bonus day off to sleep in, leisurely have that second cup of coffee and hang out in pajamas certainly has its allure. But then after a while the reality sets in. Cements us to the truth. Binds us to what the core meaning is for our students.

I am on my sixth snow day today. Not in order of course. Two sets of two and then a couple stand alones. But here I am on day six and I recognize the problem. While pajamas are great. While that third now, cup of coffee tastes fantastic,  I need my students and my students need me.

Predictability is key. Students who struggle. Students with chaotic home lives. Students with little ability to self-regulate; need predictability. They need order. They need something predictable in their lives and school can function as something they can depend on. But snow days throw that predictability off. It is almost like a relapse, again and again. Connection. Disengagement. Connection. Again and again.

Holiday breaks bring their own level of stress to our students. Being home with little to do. Crowded into small spaces. On top of one another. Lack of predictable routines. Stressed parents who need to work more.

Snow days are worse. They are unpredictable and they are symbolic of a loss of control. They illustrate, palpably, how little any of us, and in particular our students, have control over the variability in their lives. They look to us, at times, for stability and consistency and snow days disrupt that continuity for them, and for us.

School is a place of order and routine. Every single day. Schedules are predictable. Routines are predictable. Teachers expectations and attitudes are predictable. Lessons are predictable. And students respond positively to that predictability.

When school is canceled for a snow day, it feels like school is unpredictable. We become unpredictable for students. We, as one small force in their lives that is predictable, lose that credibility with our students, however unconsciously; it is what happens.

We start again, at the beginning, every singe time we come back from a holiday break or a snow day. Day one. When those snow days start accumulating in a seemingly random pattern the effect is even worse.

When I get back to class (next week, I think at this point) I will have to begin again. I will have to go back to the basics. The basics being; the relationship. We will start in community circles. We will start with our frustrations, our joys, our worries, our unmet needs. We will go from there.

Here are five ways to rebuild classroom community after a snow day, or two, or seven!

Joyfully Greet Each and Every One: This is big. Exhibit that joy you really do have for each of your students. Give them that brief moment of love. Take a deep breath. Smile. Reach out. Express your gratitude to see them. Any connection you can bring to this on an individual level is huge. That kid you struggle with the most is the one that needs this the most. Sharing an anecdote or a thought with that one student takes but a moment. “James, I saw a kid biking down the middle of the road through the snow yesterday and I wondered about you and your bike. Were you able to get outside at all to ride it?”

Address the Elephant in the Classroom: Days off are great. Most of us enjoy them. Sleeping in. Lots of TV or reading. But for some of our students and for some of us it isn’t so simple. Some of our students have more responsibility: watching siblings while parents work, the power is off so it is really cold, adults in the house are trying to cope by relying on their addictions or their bad behavior, tempers flare, food is more scarce without school supplementing with lunch and many times, breakfast. Speak to these truths and give students room to speak to these truths as well.

Review the Routines: Yes, it has only been a day or two, but we all need little reminders about beginning class and what the routine is for the day. We as educators, have been doing this day in and day out for years. This year with us, is a kid’s first year, with us. They need reminders. They need a little review. They need positive reinforcement when they get it right.

Model for Them What it Was Like For You: Being off schedule, off-kilter, not knowing until the last minute whether there will be school or not. You can speak to the frustration of not knowing, the frustration of missed lessons, the frustration of running out of milk. The more real you are to your students the more easily they can relate to who you are as their teacher.

Get Back to the Work: Get back to the important work of reconnecting through meaningful learning. Part of the struggle with snow days is being off schedule. Get back to that schedule. Get back to the real work. Building relationships with each student. Making sure they know they are important and that together, we can flourish.

Be Brave,

S

Hello . . .

Hello,

Let me begin by saying that teaching is one of the more difficult jobs to choose from as you embark on your career path. But teaching is closer to mothering (the term mothering is intentionally chosen as opposed to parenting-more later) than it is to working on an oil rig, which is also a difficult career choice. The curriculum is secondary to the relationship. Without the relationship one cannot, fully, teach, and in order to build the relationship, one must have an open heart.

Be Brave,

S

 

Five Ways to Build Predictability Coupled with Flexibility to Offset Trauma Responses After Breaks (Yes, that is a mouthful)

When the year is in full swing and the interruptions many, it can feel like a series of fits and starts that always result in loss of rhythm and predictability. Holiday breaks are fraught with peril for some of our students. Food instability, insecure housing situations, and being around family and friends with little supervision can create or exacerbate anxiety. This anxiety can be seen in our rising hallway behavior issues that correlate with long breaks from school, both leading up to the break and immediately after. It can be seen in the moodiness, withdrawal or acting out that occurs in high frequency after a break from school. It can be seen in the eyes of our students as they try to reacclimatize to school and to us. 

This unpredictability can wreak havoc on our students suffering under chronic trauma. Predictability coupled with flexibility are paramount to student success under circumstances such as these.  How can we build that predictability in but still keep class interesting? How can we help ease the load for our most vulnerable students? How can we help them readjust?

  1. Reinforce Routines: It helps lower the affective filter and eases student’s load to be able to rely on familiar routines. I remember having a bit of an epiphany one day in a language arts class when it dawned on me as a few students complained about having to read silently for the first ten minutes of every class, that that very action was probably the most predictable thing in their lives. That coming to class, sitting down with their chosen novels, and reading while Miles Davis played softly in the background was probably a routine that brought them comfort and ease in their day for the very reason that it was consistent.
  2. Build in Room for Love: It helps students handle the break if they know that when they come back you will be there waiting for them. It may seem silly to say it, but it isn’t silly at all to our students who need that reassurance. Be explicit. Look in their eyes when you tell them and repeat it, once more with feeling . . .
  3. Connect Before the Break: Make sure that you have built that relationship with your students before you head off on that break. Do they know that you care about them? Have you shown interest in what they will be doing over the break? Have you built that rapport?
  4. Create a Feedback Loop: Look ahead so that invisible thread is strung over the time apart. Make sure that your unit and lesson plans are evident to them. It may be that before you leave for the break you set up the calendar and preview it with them. If you are planning on tackling tessellations or The Great Gatsby, make sure that it is on the planner. Maybe you decorate your bulletin boards ahead of time for the upcoming unit. And frankly, this is a great way to head into your break with less on your mind about your return as well. A win win, as they say.
  5. Make Space for Honesty: Sometimes we need to just say it out loud. Sometimes we need to be able to complain or vent or share our fear or anxiety about the upcoming break. Make room for those conversations to happen. Sometimes I pass out worry slips which are basically scraps of paper left over by the paper cutter that kids can jot down their worries on. I collect them in a bin at the end of the period and promise to burn them when I get home that day. Or we read them aloud. Or we share them with a partner. Or we make a paper chain of those worries and string it up in our window. But the act of writing it down helps to get it out of our mind and on our gut. Writing it down makes it real but at the same time takes away some of the power we had given it.

We all have techniques we use in our own lives to ease our burden of stress and worry. We all have our go to’s for those dreaded events or people that we can not avoid. Help your students learn coping techniques for these situations. Help them to ease their own burden and show them that helping each other is one more part of our best self.