Years in Education: 4-6
Middle School Social Studies & Social Justice Teacher
Q: What do you have in common with your students?
A: There are layers to what my students and I have in common. Many of my kids are white. About half are girls. Most are cisgender. A handful are queer. And those, the first spokes on the intersectionality wheel, matter.
The world hits us in similar ways, and we can immediately and visibly relate to each other’s experiences. But I’m not sure those are even the most important ways in which we are similar.
I, apparently, have the sense of humor of an average middle schooler. Recently, a kid asserted that vegans had to be “tall… to get to the leaves at the top of the trees,” and I still haven’t really stopped laughing.
We share a genuine and sincere appreciation of the importance of birthdays.
We agree that sometimes it’s better to run outside in the snow and try to catch it than it is to just watch it fall.
Honestly, I think what we share the most is a genuine interest in each other. They want to know the people they spend hours with every week, and I want to know and understand them. Together, we want to understand the world, the people in it, and the choices we all make.
We don’t always agree, but we are certainly bound together by our mutual curiosity. In my social justice class (an elective that I started last year), this is especially true—and in that case, we’re also bound by a true passion for the subject.
I just did a survey yesterday, asking my social justice students about their willingness to participate in a high-risk, quite vulnerable activity. I explained the activity in detail, and I gave them an anonymous survey. If even one person did not want for the activity to occur, we wouldn’t do it. If anyone wanted changes made to the activity (for example, changing or removing some of the questions asked), I’d make those changes. They have all opted to participate in the activity, and we’ll take that courageous leap on Monday. It may be hard, but I know that we’re all taking care of each other.
With the kids with whom I have the deepest connection, what we share is a willingness to be vulnerable. We’re learning together, exploring the world and its intricacies as we go. Ms Frizzle (the greatest role model of my life) advises her students to “take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” and I think following this life approach together is an important point of connection.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: I’ve struggled with this question, because I feel equally and passionately that there are two truths that seem to directly conflict:
1. Of course it matters. Students should be able to see people like themselves represented throughout their lives, and that’s especially important when those people are in “role model” positions.
2. No, it doesn’t matter; what matters more is a genuinely caring relationship. I don’t have to have your experiences to care about them, and to believe you when you tell me about them.
I think the reality is that Truth 1 helps facilitate a movement toward Truth 2.
If kids can tell immediately that you share something in common with them, or if they learn about it, they’re more willing to trust the teacher. But if a teacher can communicate true regard for their students, in a way that students truly feel, then that can overcome a lot.
A couple of years ago, I had a wonderful, quiet student in my class. She was reliable, kind, bright, and just a genuine pleasure. She isn’t one who would stay after class and talk, but we had a positive relationship. A year later, I had her younger brother as a student. When the sister saw my name on his schedule, she assured him, “Oh, you’ll like her. She’s really LGBTQ-friendly.” The brother is trans, and his best friend—another student of mine that year—is non-binary. Before they even arrived in my classroom, they already knew that I would… see them. I’m cisgender, and very feminine, but they knew that I could be their ally and advocate. The messenger matters, certainly—but I think the message matters even more.
Litza is the founder of her school's popular Social Justice elective.
Photo (c) 2017 Kristin Leong
Humanizing the gaps separating teachers and students.