Years in Education: 4-6
Senior High School English Teacher
Q: What do you have in common with your students?
A: My parents divorced when I was 12 and my sister and I were pretty much raised by our Mum. She did a smashing job and while I can honestly say that it never felt like we missed out on anything, I know it wasn't easy for her. We didn't see our dad a lot and he didn't contribute much either financially or emotionally after the divorce. In Australia, nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce, which means many of my students have been through, are going through, or will go through a similar experience.
When I was 17, mum began seeing a new man who she later married. I struggled to share mum with him, so it’s fair to say that we didn’t hit it off right away. In fact, I was pretty awful to him for quite a while. But he was (and remains) a kind and patient man. He is indigenous and taught me a lot about prejudice. One summer, during a family beach holiday, I saw first-hand the ugliness of the kind of racism he experiences on a daily basis. We were at the local pub and he was targeted by a couple of young surfers who called him horrible names, which he later told me were derogatory terms used to refer to mixed-race indigenous people. What stood out to me most during the exchange was the strength and dignity he maintained. He stayed calm. He stood tall. He did not yell. He did not fight. I was in awe.
In that moment, my eyes were opened. I started to pay more attention to what was going on around me. I began to realise how frequent and insidious these kinds of moments were. I talked to my stepdad about them often and he guided me and helped me to understand the complexities involved. I subsequently spent a lot of time at university learning about Australia’s history of institutionalised and generational racism. I learned about white privilege and started to pay attention to instance of it in my day to day life. Now, as an English teacher, my students and I explore texts that examine themes linked to marginalisation and the “other”. I also refuse to accept even a hint of prejudice in the classroom. Students learn pretty quickly with me that there is no such thing as an innocuous joke.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: I don't think it's necessary for students and teachers to have things in commom. I think it's more important that differences are understood and respected. For me, it's critically important to have a bond and a genuine relationship with all the students I teach. If I relied on commonality to develop those, I feel I (and the students) would be worse off. This is particularly relevant in light of my TED Ed Innovation project this year. The project is based around using various media forms to document the story of our school when it opens in February 2017. It relies on the students involved bringing their unique knowledge, experiences and ideas to the table. The diversity they bring will be reflected in the stories we tell, which is key to capturing and maintaining interest.
Christie is a 2017 TED-Ed Innovative Educator. She is leading students in creating a multimedia living documentary of the opening of a new school in Australia. Find out more about Christie's work here and follow her on Twitter @CASimpson.
Humanizing the gaps separating teachers and students.