Years in Education: 20+
4th Grade Teacher
Q: What do you have in common with your students?
A: I am fortunate to live in the community in which I teach--literally four blocks away. I can see eight houses of current or former students from my yard. At the grocery store wide-eyed first graders look at me and say hesitantly, "Are you Mr. Terry?" Or the braver ones, "'Hi, Mr. Terry."
I have a Little Free Library in front of my house with a collection of books that kids and parents contribute to and take from. I am part of my community. My community is part of me.
I share their predominantly white middle class culture. I know the places they buy candy and soda. I know the trails they use to walk to school. When a student says, "gross" to the pigs feet in a Chinese Stew, I get that. Of course, I remind them that that is our predominant white culture speaking, but I do get it as well. When a student tells me his baseball game is on Field 2, I get that. I'll walk my dog by and catch an inning or two after I am home from work. When I see a parent in the neighborhood, I ask about the child's coding camp, girl scout campout, or how the summer trip to Denmark went. Plus, I share about my family vacations, kayaking adventures, and bike rides.
Furthermore, I share their curiosity about the world. Why do we line up quietly in the hallways? Check out that bug! What are the rules of four-square? How high are we allowed to climb on the play structure? Why? How can we get that ball out of that tree? Look at this nest I found in my backyard. I don't understand how to solve that problem, can you guys help we work it out? These are REAL questions and statements that I have said to my students in the past year, maybe even in one single day. I am filled with questions that often don't have clear answers. I want to know how and why things are the way they are--so do my students.
Plus, I am impatient--definitely a trait of most 9 and 10 year-olds. I want to try the new curriculum tomorrow, not wait until I am fully trained. That first sunny day after all the rain, I can't wait to get outside and play. If the book I am reading is not grabbing me, I mostly just stop reading. I recently broke my collar bone playing soccer. Playing soccer is now over for me, but mostly because I can't get myself to play carefully--just like my students.
P.E. and recess were definitely my favorite subjects when I was a kid. I pretty much hated school. I didn't learn to read until I was in the 3rd grade and never learned how to print in elementary school--I had to teach myself when I became a teacher. In the summer, I never wore shoes, hardly ever went inside, and was always on a bike, but I was also fairly scheduled with activities and vacations--like many of the middle class white kids I know.
Lastly, it is important to me that students understand all of this is our privileged white culture. When my students complain about school, as I often did, I remind them that complaining about schools is a privilege. I get that school is not always fun and enjoyable--for some, hardly ever. But, when you are nutritiously fed, enriched at home, and have a warm comfortable bed in your own home right next to your personal iPad, school can pale in comparison. Mine always did as well. But this is not true for a majority of kids around the world. We need to recognize and appreciate the privilege of living in a predominantly white American community. I never recognized that as a kid.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: Relationships are what matter.
I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I do not remember the name of a single one of my elementary or middle school teachers. I have only a few vague memories of a 5th grade teacher who used to play basketball with us at recess, and I remember some of the playgrounds I went to.
I never knew who my teachers were. They had a job to teach me content that I struggled to learn, and I had a job to sit there and be quiet. I used to wear holes in the tops of my shoes because I wiggled so much.
I didn't have a relationship with a teacher until a high school Chemistry teacher invited a group of us over to his house and shared pictures from his native country of New Zealand. Then I knew him. Then I wanted to learn Chemistry.
I don't think it matters that teachers and students have things in common. I think it matters that they work to understand who each other are as people. This entails understanding neighborhoods, cultures, and personalities. Of course, it makes our job easier if we share some of these things, like I do with my students, but it is not essential.
Great teachers should be able to find common ground with any student who shows up in his or her classroom. Teachers need to build relationship and understand the people in front of them, and share about themselves--as people. My students don't need to know how to ride a bike to hear about the places I rode over the weekend, but they do need to know that it is okay to share things you are passionate about in my classroom.
When the rain is coming down really hard and you can hear it on the roof of the school, I am the one who makes everyone be quiet and listen--I have even taking kids out to play in it. They know I love when nature acts unexpectedly. They know a lot more than that about me.
So, I need to know them. I don't need to love pie like John does, but I need to be able to understand his love of pie is an important part of who he and his family are. I certainly can't sew like Lynne can, but I know sewing is something important to her, so I am interested in her projects. I haven't read all the books that Belle has, but I love hearing her summaries and connections to her books.
We can't have something in common with every student. What is important is that each person in the room--teachers and students--are comfortable being themselves.
Lyon Terry is Washington State's 2015 Teacher of the Year and is a founding member of the Washington Teacher Advisory Council. Connect with Lyon on Twitter @lyonterry.
Photo (c) 2017 Kristin Leong
Humanizing the gaps separating teachers and students.