A Mirror, Not a Magnifying Glass

1.26.13 By Travis Bristol

[This post is the third of a series in which Travis shares comments and feedback from the 10th grade students he taught during his first year as a teacher, and reflects on his own practice.  Please click here to read the original post.]

A few years ago, I heard Dave Levin, co-founder of KIPP, talk about the need for educators to spend less time trying to figure out what students could not do and more time considering what they themselves were unable to do. Levin’s solution: a mirror, not a magnifying glass. 

I vividly remember my first year of teaching. In fact, I remember my first day in September 2004. As students entered my classroom, I recall thinking about how these young people were entrusted to me and that I needed to “save” their lives, or something equally naive. I also recollect, with humility, that I spent much of my first semester yelling—I yelled a lot! Specifically, there were five young women in the class who received the lion share of my yelling. I must confess that there were days that I wished they’d taken a mental health day. They were never sick; in fact, these young ladies had the best attendance records of all my students—all the more reason for my constant yelling.

At some point during that fall semester, I began to realize that the ways I interacted with many of my students, particularly this group of young women, did not facilitate learning. I reached out to a more senior colleague on our faculty who had great rapport with these students. My colleague suggested that I talk to the five young ladies and get a sense from them about what they liked and disliked about school. More importantly, she suggested that I consider what about these particular students “worked my very last nerve.” In time, I realized that my obsession with controlling students, particularly these young women, might have been a consequence of being reared in a patriarchal culture. These young ladies, in my world view, disrupted a social order that required that they listen to me, the male authority figure.

I took my colleague’s advice; I began speaking, individually, with these students. More importantly, I stopped trying to control them and started trying to teach them. I put more energy into creating lessons and projects that would engage them and spent less time and energy on forcing them to comply with arbitrary school and classroom rules. Slowly, the yelling subsided and the learning increased.

Similar to my previous posts, I asked two of these young ladies a couple questions about their experiences in my class.

*Shatesia Greene was born in Jamaica and immigrated to New York City while in elementary school. She is currently 22 years old and works as an assistant teacher in a New York City charter school. She graduated from a four-year university in New England.

1) What did I do when I was your teacher that engaged you/helped you learn?
You made an effort to create a bond with me. Solely based on our relationship, learning was more engaging. You were passionate in what you did, which made me appreciate you as a person, and see my strength as a student.

2) Why do you think it was helpful?
You made our lessons relevant. As a learner, I only identify with things that I care about and you made learning relevant.

*Dawn Rodney is Black-American; her parents were born in Trinidad & Tobago. At 23, she works as a clerk in a hospital having completed one year of community college.

1) What did I do when I was your teacher that engaged you/helped you learn?
As a teacher you cracked jokes with us, made us laugh, and interacted with us in the class. You made us feel comfortable and made us understand it’s not just a class and not a place where we would be judged. In a way without you realizing it… you made it to a point that you weren’t just a teacher to tell us what to do but a friend looking to improve our knowledge of the world. You showed us that you cared. Basically in those teenage years we want to learn but we don’t want to be forced and we want to be able to feel comfortable to open our minds and release what is in them. I think what was helpful was that you took each of us aside and sat down with us to figure out where or how we could improve ourselves (grades)...

2) Why do you think it was helpful?
You were organized and confident in what you were teaching…. even though we were your first classes in teaching and gave you hell…

3) What else do you wish I would have done?
There wasn’t anything else you could have done. You were above and beyond… and made an impression on all of us that will never leave us…

What Does This Mean for My Practice as a Clinical Teacher Educator?
Over the past four months, I’ve worked with our E/la Residents at the Jeremiah Burke High School to understand that when students are disengaged and manifest “disruptive behavior,” our default should not be to use a “magnifying glass” to figure out what’s wrong with them, but a “mirror” and examine the deficits in the way we present content to them.

more from Travis Bristol on the blog

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