Last week, I talked via telephone with one of my all-time favorite people in the whole wide world. He is my mentor, sponsor, friend, colleague, co-conspirator, and, quite simply, all-around cool dude. We have known each other since 1996, and were introduced by a mutual friend. He’s supported and guided me through some pretty difficult situations. Through it all – the challenges, the phone conversations, the project collaboration, and, striving to create more just and equitable independent schools – he helps me to be better as a person and as a teacher, every time we speak. But, more about him in a minute.
My school will hold an “equity and social justice day” program in late January, and, there was a call from the committee of the same name to faculty in late November – November 30, to be exact – to submit proposals for workshops. Well, it was now December 11th; I had just returned from Atlanta where I delivered a workshop at the National Association of Independent School’s People of Color Conference (NAIS PoCC), and, quite honestly, I was mentally and physically exhausted. All that being said, the deadline for submission, December 15, was fast-approaching, and, I needed to get something together. However, I was stuck: On the one hand, I wanted to deliver something that focused on how we see, or more specifically, don’t see each other, with middle schoolers- grades six through eighth – as the focus audience. On the other hand, I was struggling with creating content. Specifically, how do I appeal to this particular age group in a way that is not only engaging but also would give them something on which to build?
Enter my fabulous friend and colleague: I sent him a quick email last Monday, to which he quickly responded. After going back and forth via email re: the day and time of the impending conversation, we decided to talk on Wednesday afternoon.
As my friend and I talked, he posed a question: Do we teach in a way that is predicated on relationships? A related question was: How can kids know each other if they don’t know themselves? This points to relationship with self first, and with others second. How well do we, as teachers, actually help kids to do either of these things? We then talked about invisibility, and the cognitive abilities kids develop when they know self and each other.
My friend emailed me some resources, and made some suggestions re: activities. The workshop proposal, as well as the workshop itself, came together. Here is my proposal:
How do we make real connections with others? Through surveys, reflective writing, small-group work, stories, role-play, and case studies, we will explore invisibility as a form of bias.
I am still working on the specifics, but, I was finally able to assemble the words in order to frame what I want to accomplish, and how I want to accomplish it with the students. The workshop itself will continue to unfold in the weeks ahead.
As a youth, it really did not matter to me how my teachers felt about me, or, how I felt about them. In fact, I was rather indifferent to my teachers. After all, I was there to learn, and they were there to teach. Besides, I came from a loving, supportive, and structured home, and, quite frankly, had no expectations of my teachers for emotional support.
As a result of my own relationships with teachers, becoming the teacher that I am today has not emerged without a lot of pain, struggle, and deep self-reflection. A case in point: During the 1999-2000 school year, when I landed at a new school following three years at my previous school, the upper school division head and I had many conversations about the topic of student-teacher relationships. Despite all of the time she spent with me, talking, I just wasn’t getting it. For me, my subject-area knowledge and expertise were the most important aspects. I finally asked the division head the following: “Which is more important – my skill as a teacher, or, my relationships with students?” For her, unequivocally, it was the latter.
Looking back almost 17 years later on those conversations, I realize now that the relationships I build and maintain with my students are the most fundamental. The fact that I see them, I hear them, I worry about them, and I hurt when they are hurting, enable me, in fact, to teach the skills and the content. Moreover, in a strange twist of fate, it was the relationship that the division head strived to build and maintain with me and, it is the 20-year relationship that my friend and I have built and nurtured, that have allowed me to be seen, heard, worried about, and cared for. It’s about relationships.