Thursday, March 13, 2014

It's all a matter of trust

I'm white. My students (predominantly) are not. The weird thing is that most of the time, I don't even notice it. I can't speak for the students, but I hardly ever feel racial tensions - either between students & staff, or among the students themselves. But the tensions are there, if only subconsciously. 

I'll be the first to acknowledge the fact that my students and I come from different worlds. I don't need to go into the differences, but long story short: I was raised in a middle to upper-middle class suburb of NYC which was overwhelmingly white. I teach in a district in which the demographics of the community have changed drastically over the past decade and is now predominantly black, comprised mostly of working class families. 

Every aspect of a teacher's job is inherently based on trust. Implicit in every direction we give students is the reasoning that "we know what's best for you better than you do." Why did I tell you to put your phone away? It's not because I'm allergic to phones, it's because I know that you will have an easier time learning the content that we're covering if you're not subject surrounded by distractions. Why did I assign homework? It's because I know that practice is vital to forming a comprehensive understanding of the material. Why do I insist on your daily on-time attendance? Because you can't participate in the learning process if you're not here. 

For those that argue that schools should adopt a culture of less regulation and encourage students to essentially do as they please, I'd argue that philosophy is built on the assumption that students are mature enough to make sound and rational decisions. They're not. Sure, there are a handful of exceptional students who are wise beyond their years, but our entire society is predicated on the notion that minors lack the reasoning ability to make competent decisions. Minors are subject to a different legal system than adults. Minors aren't allowed to vote, buy tobacco or alcohol, or even drive a car after dark. Why should we assume that they understand the need to sometimes suffer through arduous tasks in order to reap long term rewards? 

Ideally, everything that goes on inside of a school happens for a reason, and that reason should be to benefit the education of the students. Questioning authority is natural for teenagers, and teachers/administrators should be up to the challenge of answering those questions. "Because I said so" is the fastest way to lose the trust of the learner. 

But here's the thing: I'm beginning to realize that my students don't trust me, and not because I've been unable to provide satisfactory answers to their 'why?' questions. My fear is that the lack of trust is because I don't look like them. I doubt (or sincerely hope) that this is not a conscious decision, but rather a consequence of the culture they've been raised in. I don't think that they approach a white person and immediately think "I'd better be wary of anything this person says," but in the back of their minds, they're missing the fundamental trust of their leader. It's possible that deep down, the root cause is that of differing socio-economic status, but skin color is a very visible trigger. At the end of the day, it's clear that I am not one of them, so they have a natural inclination to be wary of my actions and my motives. Or to put it another way, they don't trust me. 

Mind you, I'm not suggesting any solutions to the problem, I'm simply trying to pin down the cause of the problem itself. Maybe I can work harder to bridge the culture gap between myself and my students. Maybe it's something about me specifically, or maybe the same could be said for my particular group of students. Maybe there is no solution - maybe learners will never learn as fully as they can from a teacher who's not one of them. Regardless, we can't even begin to work toward a solution until we acknowledge and fully understand the problem. 

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