My Corner of the World
by Vivett Dukes | 04.22.17
I’m a new teacher in my building this year, and when our first semester together started, my seventh graders definitely put me through some rites of passage to see if I really cared about them. With seven years of teaching under my belt, I knew that I not only had to tell them I cared – I had to make sure they could feel it when they walked into the room.
Creating a caring atmosphere takes hard work, but the payoff is absolutely worth it. You know that feeling of walking into someone’s home for the first time and immediately wanting to stay awhile? That’s a vibe that says there’s care there. And as teachers, we are masters of creating that same vibe to ensure our students feel at home in our classrooms.
“Home” means something different to each student, but no matter what, home reflects your culture. This is an important thing for all of us teachers to think about. Every day we welcome in students who are different than us – who come from different kinds of families, who are different ethnicities, who’ve lived lives we haven’t. And given that more than 80 percent of teachers are white, I wanted to offer this advice: Be transparent. When I face the shame or fear of not knowing something, I try to be “transparent.” It has become my favorite word and a mantra. There’s so much power in the transparency of asking, “I don’t know about your culture – will you tell me about it?”
Taking a vested interest in learning my students’ cultures – and actively seeking out ways to embed their culture into class in a very authentic way – takes a lot of different forms in our classroom. I might ask students to fill out a survey about their favorite parts of their home culture, include parents by inviting them to share their favorite books, or share something about my own Jamaican culture with students. Those connections can come when we least expect them, like when I was eating chickpeas – common in Jamaican cooking – and a student said, “Hey, my mom makes those, too!” We bonded over how different cultures can be represented by a single dish.
We have to pursue these intersections, especially with students of color. There are so many ways in which people of color have to be extraordinary just to be perceived as ordinary. We need to recognize that and teach to it.
For me, it’s in the moments when my students can see themselves reflected in the classroom – when they know I’m celebrating and learning about them as extraordinary individuals – that the real connections form. That’s where learning thrives.