Years in Education: 16-20
7-8th Grade Digital Teacher Librarian and former High School English Teacher
Q: What do you have in common with your students?
A: Currently, I teach in a middle school. This is an interesting age of growing because they are leaving the world of concrete ideas and entering into abstract ideas. This means their world of black and white, right and wrong starts to tilt wildly and they are just holding on for dear life trying to navigate what was previously a very defined life.
When I was this age, I believe I lived in a more sheltered world where topics like drug abuse, eating disorders, and sex were there, but not prevalent and easy-access as they are today. Mental health definitely wasn’t something that was an acknowledged issue at the middle school level, possibly not even at the high school level.
Now, my students face a barrage of social media, television, music, and movies that give them ideas of what right and wrong are and who or what is acceptable. When these images don’t mesh with who they are, our kids struggle with their identity, depression, anger, and rebellion.
Because of this, I work hard to make connections that are more than academic level connections. Through my Ted-Ed club and Ted-Ed Innovative Project, my kids and I focus on combining the idea of global citizenship and social justice to create lessons for others to use to help them navigate the ambiguity that they are in. In our efforts, we hope to build a safe environment in which our society starts to become stronger through acceptance of change and challenging the status quo.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: Having commonalities between teachers and students is essential to growth and learning.
Before I became a Digital Teacher Librarian, I taught high school English in a high-risk school. My school had 70 countries represented and close to 120 dialects and languages spoken in the households.
I grew up in upper-middle class suburban Colorado where diversity was not something common. Working in this school gave me such a wide understanding of the world I live in. I learned more from my students than I could ever hope to have taught them. Experiencing quinciñeras, Vietnamese and Chinese New Year, Day of the Dead and Cinco de Mayo with my students didn’t just increase my cultural awareness, but my students awareness of each other’s cultures. It also increased my empathy for those disenfranchised with learning and education.
When I was growing up, it was always when you go to college...My students heard, “if you graduate high school”. The impact of that simple phrase shocked me to the core. When your family and community don’t even expect you to graduate high school, the importance of working to reach graduation distorts like a funhouse mirror.
Although I remember many of my students and their hard work and pride from graduating, one student always sticks in my memory. Her name was Maria and she came to me and asked if she could talk to me after school. I worried that she was about to tell me she was pregnant. Prior to Maria, I'd had approximately 50 girls and 10 boys (whose girlfriends were pregnant) come to me with pregnancy news.
In fact, Maria had come to me because she didn’t know what to do. She was taking IB classes and doing very well. She wanted to attend Colorado College, a private college in Colorado Springs. Her counselor basically informed her that she shouldn’t shoot so high, she should look at community college because that was what her family could afford. When she spoke to her parents, they also expressed doubt that she could succeed in the high-pressure world of college and suggested she attend community college and then start working for the family business. When she came to me, she was in tears because her dream had been to go to Colorado College and to start a career. She asked me what she should do, how to shift gears to lower her dreams.
Instead of jumping on that band wagon, I told her that she should apply to Colorado College. She was a first generation citizen, her parents had immigrated to America before she was born. I told her that there were a lot of scholarships she could apply for and that CC also had scholarships she could apply for. I even found a couple of suggested scholarships.
After that talk, I didn’t hear anymore about college, until the spring. Maria asked if I could come to the Senior award night. I did, and on stage, in front of her family, peers, and teachers, it was announced that not only was she accepted to CC, but she received a full-ride scholarship to college.
I have never felt more pride for a student for their refusing to give up on their dreams than at that moment. That moment, that student, is the epitome of the importance of connecting with our students.
Sometimes, we are the only voice they hear that says “yes, you can.” or “follow your dreams” or “try again, learn from what went wrong and try again.” That is the reason most teachers become teachers and those connections are why it matters if students and teachers share commonalities. Not just because it helps them learn, but because it is essential to have that lifeline when things start going wonky in life.
Tobye is a TED-Ed Innovative Educator. Her Innovation Project is inspring Colorado students to become global learners. Follow her on Twitter @tmertelt.
Photo (c) 2017 Kristin Leong