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“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” – Frederick Douglass
This is one of my favorite quotes. I remember as a first year teacher, I said this quote day-in and day-out to my students. My goal was for them to realize that struggle was part of the process of growing and learning over time. I often allowed them time to write about and discuss what they thought it meant. To add my two cents, I often used analogies to help them understand. I talked about babies learning to walk and talk, and how that process takes a about a year for most babies, but can take longer! They often laughed at this realizing the truth of the statement. I even used sports’ analogies, sharing how athletes get better over time with consistent and persistent effort. Often times, my students ate this up, and were motivated to work harder. Some of them were transformed, and continued to work harder over massive periods of time as if they were completely different students! Over the years, I have come to refer to or even use this quote less, but I have recently began using it again because I still believe in the words spoken by Frederick Douglass so long ago. Can you relate to this quote?
THE STRUGGLE IS REAL
When I think about every opportunity I have had in my life, and every time I have failed or excelled at something, the road has never been easy. Even getting my new teaching position this year was not easy. I missed plenty of Zzz, completing applications, gathering reliable people to write letters of recommendations and to use as references, updating and creating a new resume and portfolio (I went digital! Post about this coming soon!), planning and preparing for potential interviews, while still ensuring I dotted and crossed every i and t, at my current place of employment. Burn out could have set in, but I remembered my goal and how this short-term sacrifice could help me reach a longer-term goal. One that I had set out to achieve only 10 years earlier, and was politely denied with an offer I knew was not for me. Even still, throughout the process of teaching and learning there are many opportunities that allow for our struggles to lead to progress.
As educators, our daily tasks are not always, and sometimes never simple. We all know
the struggle is real, and we know it all too well. We have to deal with 20+ little people’s personalities who may or may not want to learn, or are unable to focus on learning due to some basic need not being met or extenuating circumstances. We also have to read or create Individualized Education Plans (IEPs); create lesson plans; adapt activities; purchase materials using our own funds; attend staff and PLC meetings; participate in Professional Development (PD); align curriculum to standards; teach culturally relevant content; grade papers; display student work; contact families; keep clearances up-to-date; make copies on a copy machine that is like Bob Marley: Always Jammin’!; hold our bladders for hours; and stay positive knowing we have to come early, stay late, or take work home with us when we simply don’t want to. Do you feel me?
Because of our many responsibilities as teachers, it is vital that we always have on the hat of a learner. As a R.E.N.E.W.E.D. T.E.A.C.H.E.R., we should always be willing to:
EXPERIENCE A LEVEL OF DISCOMFORT
NOTHING GROWS IN THE COMFORT ZONE
As the image above states, being comfortable is cool, but you’re not getting better. I mean, I love being at home in my cozy sweats, wrapped in a blanket, eating popcorn and watching TV with my family. However, if my goal is to have a six-pack with quads, hamstrings, biceps, and triceps to match, I am not going to develop that body in my comfort zone. As educators, how can we expect our students to push through their level of discomfort or frustration to learn, if we are unable to put ourselves in similar situations to teach and reach all learners? We should never expect from our students what we are unable or unwilling to do ourselves. #lifelonglearner So as my father always asked me before I left for school, I ask you, “Do you have your thinking cap on?”
BEYOND DIVERSITY HAD ME UNCOMFORTABLE IN MY TRUTH
Recently, I attended a two day seminar titled, “Beyond Diversity: Introduction to Courageous Conversations and a Foundation for Deinstitutionalizing Racism and Eliminating Racial Achievement Disparities.” Because talking about race seems to be taboo for many people, the conversations we had were sometimes quite uncomfortable. But I went wanting to learn and was ready for the uncomfortable conversations that were bound to surface.
One woman asked, “As a white woman, how do I get over the guilt?” It took
me sometime, but as I considered her question, in my mind I thought, “First, remember, it’s not your fault. Never give up on eliminating racial disparities; be intentional in learning about your students; don’t assume, but rather ask questions; and continue to educate yourself by reading and becoming familiar with culturally relevant teaching.” Since I began teaching in a new school district, this year, these were all things I had to do to get my mind right before stepping into unfamiliar teaching territory. I have never taught in a predominantly African American school. I later shared my thoughts and experiences with her.
Another participant shared that he and his siblings had never seen his father shirtless. Not even when they went swimming, or when he went to bathe. About three years before he died, he took his shirt off at a family reunion to show why he never removed it in front of his children. He had decades worth of pain hidden on his back. As a former Indentured Servant in Alabama, in the 20th century, he received lashings that not only scarred him, but could have scarred his children much more had he shown them during their childhood. This blew my mind!
The stories of my bi-racial classmates added another level of discomfort. I never knew lighter toned African Americans desired to have a darker complexion because they were tired of everyone saying they thought they were better because of their light, close to white skin. When we talked about White Privilege and what that meant by completing a survey and comparing scores, none of us were surprised by the results due to the nature of the questions. However, the look of the room was pitiful. You could clearly see the haves and the have nots. (Teaching Tolerance offers some PD on racism and white privilege here.)
Mary Jane Burke’s Tweet.
While the two days were enlightening, I was wrapped up in my feelings and thoughts. IN MY UNCOMFORTABLE TRUTH, I couldn’t help but think that because I have assimilated into white culture, I am sometimes unable to relate to my students of color. I’m so uncomfortable that I want to backspace this entire sentence. These thoughts get me wrapped up in my feelings because it makes me angry that I can’t always understand or relate to people that look like me. Race is not everything, but it is the first objective characteristic most people notice when a person enters a space. Nevertheless, all of this made me extremely uncomfortable. I pride myself in connecting with my students and their families by building strong relationships, and I still feel that I have the gift of doing so, but at times I struggle. I gather that this is normal…you know? To struggle sometimes. But when you struggle with the same type of student over time and you begin to notice it, or realize that something is not quite right, it’s time to get out of your feelings and thoughts, and take action. In the words of Shinora Grayson Johnson, personal finance guru and money manager at Disciplined Dollars, “You have to get to a healthy level of disgust if you really want to change.”
So, what are some ways are you being like Frederick Douglass today? How are you embracing your teaching struggles in order to help you grow and to help your students grow?
As we continue to learn and grow together through discomfort, please share your teaching struggles, and how you have been able to overcome them or not. I cannot wait to hear how the struggle is real for you. While this post was not meant to focus on race, it kind of took that turn, but please feel free to share any of your struggles.
Until then, Happy Teaching!
Krystal L. Smith