I was once confronted with a class of students who were nothing like me. I’m a white dude; most of them were African American. They were largely poor and had zero interest in 9th grade Civics.
I failed to appreciate that I was as alien to them as they were to me. Here I was this gung ho guy with a master’s degree in history from Ohio State. In retrospect, I came on way too strong! These kids wanted nothing to do with me. Not only were they cold, but they’d undermine a lot of my lessons. It was a long September.
My crabby students filed in one dreary Monday morning in early October. I paired them up for an activity, but they were far more interested in weekend exploits…which was so frustrating! There were a couple young guys by my desk who were loudly yammering. I was close to redirecting them, but I stopped myself. I decided to subtly listen to their conversation. What came next was an education. As I heard their weekend reports, it became clear their home situations resembled reality TV shows. There was lots of drama and poor choices. But what really struck me was many of the adults in their lives were transient.
I felt like Archimedes storming out on the streets of ancient Athens and hollering, “EUREKA!” It made perfect sense. Here I was, a new adult, trying to work my way into their lives. It was a rational act on their part to be standoffish! Of course they were going to check me out for a while before they let me in. The problem was not my students, it was me, and my ego, and my expectations, and my limited perspective.
As a result of this discovery, I made two minor, but powerful, adjustments. When I interacted with my students, I decided to remove my ego from the equation. I approached conversations like an objective observer. Once I shifted to this perspective, I was amazed how interesting interactions became. I would ask myself…”Hmmm, I wonder why he responded that way?” I stopped pushing and started learning. I also realized that bonding with these kids was going to take longer than a couple of weeks. I knew I was a friendly guy and I had plenty of time to win them over.
A few days after my Eureka experience, I had a huge breakthrough. We were discussing civil rights and I prompted them, “Who was the first African American baseball player to make it to the major leagues in 1947?” Many of these young people had heard about Jackie Robinson their entire lives. But that didn’t prevent one young man from offering, “That’d be Adolph Hitler!” His sarcastic answer sponsored waves of derisive laughter. Before my Eureka experience, I would have been frustrated by this, but I pulled my ego out of the situation, and for some odd reason, pictured, in my mind’s eye, Adolf Hitler in a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball uniform. Then, the magic happened! I disintegrated into laughter! I’ll never forget the looks on their faces, “WOW…uptight Mr. Sturtevant is laughing!” It was the first time we all shared a laugh. It was transformative.
From that point forward, I stopped pushing so hard. I parked my ego and my limited perspective. I worked on my approachability and I became more patient. IT WORKED! Students are like a mirror image of their teacher. When you relax some…they relax some. When you become more approachable…they become more approachable.
By Thanksgiving, I was darned cordial with those kids, and by spring break, I had them! I owe it all, to a gray October morning when I stopped broadcasting, stopped pushing, and sought to understand my students.
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I also love doing professional development. If you’re interested, here’s my email: firstname.lastname@example.org