I entered the teaching profession back in 2010 with big goals that I felt I had to accomplish. Although teaching was not my first career choice, I felt that if God placed me in a classroom, there was some necessary work that I had to do (with my chest puffed out and hands on my hips). I entered the classroom prideful believing that it was up to me to save the faces in front of me. At 23, I barely had my life together but it was up to me to give these faces a shot at life although I knew nothing about the life that they lived. Full of my ignorance, I did not care that I did not know much about the students I faced daily, I just knew that little old me was called to accomplish a mighty task and if I didn't do it, no one else could or would. While my students may not have understood my efforts, but I didn’t care because they would thank me end. I mean who wouldn’t thank and offer high praise to someone who changed their lives. Ha! The nerve of me.
Deficit thinking is how I would define the first year of my teaching career. First, in the family college graduate, it was my duty to go help others pull themselves up by their bootstraps because they were incapable of doing so themselves. I could not see my own biases when it came to students who looked like me because I was one of them. There was no way that I could possess any bias because I was a black woman from South Central, Los Angeles. If no one else knew what it felt like to be poor and black, I definitely did. That was my life story. However, with my college degrees laced in respectability and superiority and I approached my students and the education profession with a Jesus complex. I was a savior in a classroom full of students who needed to be saved.
On the outside, I was doing everything right. However, I was failing on the inside. From the rigorous assignments to the challenging assessments, I thought I was giving my students everything they needed to be prepared for the future. Everything they needed to escape their dismal conditions and thrive in their post-secondary lives. However, I was failing them big time because the one thing they needed I was not giving. They needed ME and not the persona that was standing in front of them dictating the course of their lives with my notions of respectability. It was time for me to keep it REAL for a generation of students that needed it the most.
From fake news to filters, it’s hard to tell what is real and what is a fraud in today’s society. Our students are bombarded daily with counterfeit images and items. The last thing they need is to receive an education from a system full of savior-minded educators, who refuse to keep it real with them, or an education that fails to prepare them with the real knowledge, skills, and tools they will need to thrive. In a space that I thought I had figured out and knew all the answers to solving the problems my students had and would potentially face, I found myself back at the drawing board. However, to grow as an educator, this was exactly where I needed to be. In this space, I had to face my truth and get real with myself, first, before I was able to get real with my students. After deep reflection, I realized that while I was where God wanted me to be, I was not there because of my own doing. However, I was there because of educators who were willing to meet me where I was, help me discover my potential, and, most importantly, keep it REAL with me when I did not know who the true me was. Drawing from the strategies implemented by educators I was blessed to have in my life, I started approaching my profession and pedagogy from a new angle with the end goal of simply keeping it REAL with my students. So, what does it mean to keep it REAL?
Relationships Rooted in Respect for Students Communities and Cultures
In education, building positive relationships with students is a must. It is impossible to build a positive and solid relationship with any student if you do not know or respect the culture that they identify with or the community that they come from. If any educator attempts to develop a relationship with students without gaining a deep understanding of their cultural and communal values then that relationship will be shallow and destined to fall apart at the slightest misunderstanding. A big part of developing relationships with students is gaining their trust. However, it is impossible to gain a student’s trust if there is no understanding of how trust is gained and exhibit according to cultural and communal norms. From experience, when attempting to develop relationships with our students, this is something that must be prioritized and continual. It can not be something that only happens at the beginning of the school year and ends at the sound of the bell. Like any relationship, we must show our students that we are all in and truly invested in THEM even if this means spending our lunch chilling with students in the cafeteria or going out into the neighborhoods and spending time with our students and their families at recreational sporting events, religious services, or other community gatherings. Just like we would act when courting a potential mate, we must go all out when trying to get to know students for who they really are and their WHY. In doing so, we must also keep our approach to relationship building fresh and we must be willing to step outside our comfort zone and go where the students are figuratively and literally. The more we connect with our students on a deeper level--through cultural and community interactions-- the better we will become at fully understanding them and their social, emotional, cultural, and educational needs. From solid relationships, we will be better equipped to educate the whole student and, as a result, see our students accomplish great strides.
Engaging Students in a Culturally Relevant and Realistic Manner
Getting REAL with our students also means getting relevant with our students and bringing into our schools and classrooms all things that are relevant and important to their communities. Culturally Responsive Teaching is trendy in educational spaces, but sadly, some educators have reduced it down to hip-hop, holidays, and homage. However, it is more than that. Our students want to know and see that what is important to them is important to you. The issues that concern them, they concern you. What they find beauty in is beautiful to you. Their reality becomes your reality. In their learning environment, educators use students’ cultural assets to push them to new levels of academic success, develop their cultural competence, and awaken their sociopolitical conscious while embracing and show deep appreciation for cultures and communities each student represents.
Authenticity in Our Interactions With Students
Our students value educators that they know were authentic and genuine. Yet, unfortunately, there are too many educators out there who are not their real selves. They have been trained to wear their game faces--the never smile before Christmas faces--and have yet to take them off. Or, they are “lying to kick it” by portraying one persona to students and colleagues while being someone different when behind closed doors. When we model being “fake” to our students, they internalize this and make decisions about how they will interact with us or their peers based on their observations. As well, what we have shown them is that we are not who we say we are and, possibly can not be trusted. We can not expect or demand that students give us their all when we are not, through our interactions, give them our all. The late Maya Angelou once said, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” What have you shown to your students? If you want to keep it real with them, make sure they always see the real you.
Learning Environment That Meets The Needs of All Students
Finally, when keeping it real with our students, we must provide them with a learning environment that meets all of their individual and specific needs. We can not claim to be “real” with our students yet deprive them of the freedom they need to grow socially, emotionally, and intellectually in our schools and classrooms. Specifically, our classrooms should be like a five-star restaurant. Our students all enter hungry but are fed and fulfilled according to their specific tastes and desires. Our classroom and lessons should reflect the diversity of your students’ culture and reality, seating arrangements should be flexible, and students should be allowed to take ownership of what they learn and how they learn. When it comes to how our learning environments operate, no decision should be made about students without students because it’s all about the students.
Getting REAL with your students is more than a catchy acronym. Yet, it is a strategy for success when it comes to educating students who are constantly presented with false realities. With all of the changes happening in the education world, the one thing all students should be assured of is that they are receiving a real education from real educators who are focused on their real needs. As we make our way into the new year, let’s be intentional about keeping it REAL with our students.
Alexes M. Terry
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Alexes M. Terry is a wife, mother, and lover of Education and History. She is a high school U.S. History instructor, affiliate faculty for a graduate school of Education, and founder of TwistED Teaching Educational Consulting Company. Using her experience as a classroom educator, Alexes strives to support educators in “twisting” the way they do teaching and learning in urban schools.
Alexes’ upcoming book--REAL LOVE--uses her personal story and professional experiences to provide educators with engaging, relevant, and practical strategies on how to educate, connect with, and transform the lives of students, in urban schools who see no way out of the conditions that surround them.