Years in Education: 4-6
High School AP English Teacher
Q: What do you have in common with your students?
A: Throughout most of my education I was never known as a high-performing student. In fact, I was satisfied passing with Cs. The rare B’s I did receive I thought must have been through luck and polite behavior.
I felt like I was just expected to pass and I was never motivated to achieve more than what was expected of me. I see now that I feared finding out that even with my best efforts, I may not be good enough. It was safer for me to not try hard in school.
Similar to many students who enter my classroom, I never had a mentor who inspired me, or a teacher who invested their time into me outside the classroom. No one expected me to become better than who I already was.
But in high school, that’s what I wanted. I longed for a relationship with my teachers. I was desperate for an adult to invest their time into me and to show me that I mattered. Simply put, I wanted to be known. I wanted to know that my teachers cared not just about my grades, but about me: who I was, my aspirations, and my passions.
Now as a teacher I see that so many of my students want that same thing. I empathize with my students who have been expected to achieve very little. The ones who have been given up on. I see that society has stereotyped and labeled them and I try to see past those stereotypes and labels myself.
If you were to come into my classroom, you would see a white, middle-class, heterosexual male teacher in front of a room of teenagers who are mostly Hispanic and Asian. A smaller population of my students are Pacific Islander, African American, and Caucasian. 70% of my students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Many of my students are 1st or 2nd generation immigrants who speak a variety of different languages. About 80% of our students at TEC High School are male.
I may not look like a majority of the students in my classroom, nor have a similar socio-economic status, but what I do share with my students is the desire for relationships, to be affirmed and pushed to a higher expectation, and ultimately, to be known. During the year, as we share our stories with each other I have found that I have a lot more in common with my students than I originally thought. That is why we take the time to share our stories with each other and most importantly, to listen to one another. My hope is that we may see what we do have in common and in the end see the humanity in each other.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: I start each year telling my students about how I was not involved in high school and had no idea what I wanted to pursue in college. I tell them I went to college hoping to learn construction. I tell them about my insecurities including my fear of speaking in public. And then I tell them how I overcame those challenges to become a teacher.
I don’t spend the first week of school having us tell our stories so that I can only get to know them, but more so that they can also get to know me. I hope that they can find some similarities between us and see that we’re not so different after all. Ultimately, I hope that they also learn to be okay with being vulnerable and learn to tell their story.
Shortly after sharing with my students this year, I had a student come up to me at the end of the day and tell me that even though we look completely different, he saw himself in my story. We talked about our battles with anxiety and our fear of speaking in front of others, and how hard it is sometimes to motivate ourselves when there’s little support or purpose. By the time we ended our conversation, this student resolved to join ASB and get involved in assemblies so that he could overcome what has been holding him back for so long.
It’s the connections like this, or finding out that I still relate to the humor of seventeen-year-old boys, or taking the time to share the music and shows we like, or even sharing the love for soccer and kicking the ball around after school that brings me to a resounding, YES! It does matter that students and teachers have things in common!
It can be a groundbreaking moment when you realize how much in common you actually have with your students. When that moment finally breaks down barriers, there’s an increasing desire to learn and an increasing desire to teach and become a part of each other's story.
Cameron is the Head of the English Department at TEC High School in Seattle. He is also a former a flag football/soccer/basketball coach. Connect with him on Twitter @CamMTown.
Photo (c) 2017 Kristin Leong
Humanizing the gaps separating teachers and students.