A Good Start: Representation, Connections, and Mattering

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Picture courtesy of Wendy Madigan Turner, 2nd Grade Teacher at Mount Pleasant Elementary

I was gifted the opportunity to read Dr. Bettina Love’s forthcoming book, We Want to do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, to be released in Feb. 2019. In the book, Dr. Love, an associate professor of Educational Theory & Practice at the University of Georgia, discusses the importance of “mattering”—specifically that it is not enough to simply make it through the day: students, especially those of color, must feel that they matter. Mattering means students are represented, are seen and heard, and know they belong in school. Students are not simply there to learn, but to believe in their potential and have the opportunity for success beyond high school. They have the right not simply to survive, but to thrive. 

I use this phrase a lot when speaking about serving students: “we must show students they matter.” Dr. Love’s book helped me to explore this phrase. What does it look like to show students they matter? How do we articulate this from the first day of class and believe it’s true? The answer, for me, is intentionally being culturally responsive, both in and outside of the classroom

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Picture courtesy of Wendy Madigan Turner, 2nd Grade Teacher at Mount Pleasant Elementary

I love the the start of a new school year, when the school is bustling as we all prepare for the year ahead. One of my favorite activities is a visit to the store for school supplies — pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, and, of course, decorations. We all want to set the right tone, to ensure our classrooms are inviting, comfortable, and engaging. One piece we often miss, however, is leaving room for student representation and voice. It’s disconcerting to have a blank wall, especially when we have our own ideas about how our classrooms will run. It can be difficult to hand some of that authority over to our students. 

Being culturally responsive is more than hanging motivational posters or world flags around the room, it is an open willingness to accept students as they come to us, and a commitment to seek to know our students as both learners and as valuable, beautiful human beings. This means we acknowledge our students come from a variety of backgrounds that can create challenges, but that we also recognize the strengths and uniqueness those backgrounds provide. We should view students through their assets and build from there. 

As we close out the start of the school year, here are three suggestions for teachers to take on this year’s journey:

  1. Begin with Yourself: Every interaction in our classrooms starts with us. Self-reflection and self-knowledge are essential to understanding how our experiences in life have shaped our perceptions and contributed to our biases. Our perceptions and biases deeply impact our connections with our students. If we understand where we come from, our social groups (race, ethnicity, gender identity, religious affiliation, socio-economic status, etc.), we can then recognize specifically how we differ from and are similar to our students. We can check ourselves, work to set aside our biases, and be open to all of our students— better able to see the assets and gifts they bring with them into our classrooms. I, personally, do this difficult work of self-reflection every day. 

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    Picture courtesy of Wendy Madigan Turner, 2nd Grade Teacher at Mount Pleasant Elementary
  1. Be Interested in Your Students: We all know our primary focus is our students. But sometimes we can get caught up in our curriculums or making it from point A to point B, and forget that connections are what truly count in our classrooms. The more connected we are with our students and they are with one another, the more confident they are and the more growth they show. At the beginning of every semester build strong relationships with your students. Get to know them both as learners and as individuals. This also means taking time at the start of the year to build community in your classroom through specific activities aimed at helping everyone get to know each other and setting up a structure for weekly class meetings. 

I It also means reaching out to families. I often drive through my students’ neighborhoods. I set up meetings with students’ families and visit their homes. I learn so much about my students from seeing their life outside of school and visiting with their families. If possible, find out who is in your class before the start of the school year and learn something positive, a strength or talent, before you even meet them. 

  1. Leave Room for Student Expression: There are so many awesome products out there for our classrooms- and so many pictures of the perfect classroom—colorful and inviting, engaging and dynamic. It’s tempting to want to replicate these environments without personalizing them based on your students. Resist. Every classroom is different and every new group of students is unique and requires their own environment. Student voice is essential to that environment. While it can be a bit disconcerting and challenging to our sense of control as educators, leave at least one wall blank and give your students opportunities to fill it up, not simply with their work, but with their ideas, their cultures, and their personalities. In my context, students develop classroom expectations, they make posters about themselves and throughout the semester they post representations of who they are and where they come from. I learn from them and they learn about one another. It’s a way to build community. 

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    Picture courtesy of Wendy Madigan Turner, 2nd Grade Teacher at Mount Pleasant Elementary

As Dr. Bettina Love reminds us, students, especially students of color, need to know they matter. One of the biggest reasons students leave school is because they do not feel represented or welcome in their schools. They don’t believe they belong. We must be culturally responsive. First, we must seek to understand ourselves in order to be open to every student who walks through our doors. Second, we must connect with students and really know them. Finally, we have to relinquish some control to our students and give them agency in our classrooms. Empower every student to assert their voice. Show them they matter. 

*This is only the tip of the iceberg – cultural responsiveness is not easy, it’s not a checklist, it’s a commitment and there are no quick answers – there is always more work to do…

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