The following is a piece written by Daniel Collins in fulfillment of course requirements.
The Power of “Mr.”: How a Teacher’s Identity Impacts Students’ Well Being
I feel almost unqualified for the title of “Mr.” The thought of being called Mr. Collins irked me completely, probably because I didn’t know whom that person was, yet. That person would soon become a reality, as I stood in front of 30 students who all now knew me as my title and last name, only. I remember the first time a student raised her hand and actually said it: “Mr. Collins I’m not sure I understand…” I laughed. Right in front of the entire class, I could have been watching a broadcast of the Colbert Report and no one would have been able to identify the difference. Over the course of the next twelve weeks, my alter ego defined himself in this urban central New York High School, where I would be undergoing my first semester of student teaching. It’s rather exciting to see yourself, even as a person of minor reverence, be defined, redefined, and redefined again. You come to school with a new mindset each day.
The school environment that I was enveloped in, for lack of a better word, was digressive. The relationships between teachers and students carried no amount of personal matter, almost to indicate a lack of appreciation for what the other has to offer. Doing just enough to “pass” seemed to be the norm. The students’ incompatibility between their teachers and their understanding, was only too noticeable. I needed to change. In some way, I needed to change my perception of how a teacher should interact with his/her students. I needed to change my students’ perspective of what having the title of “Mr.” meant. By not changing, I become part of a trend of teachers that potentially seldom create levels of trust between their students.
I began to develop as a teacher, both in my pedagogy and my idea of what a teacher should represent. Student support, became the mantra of my teaching and interaction. As Bell Hooks states: “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” Despite of this, so often do we dispose inherent problems with our nation’s Educational system onto the inadequacies of our students. Even as the young, naïve, and righteous college student, teachers are often told to: “leave the cape at home”, for a reason. Teachers can, however, change the daily interactions and conversations that we choose to have with our students. The acceptance of diversity as well as the promotion of student well being and potential, embodies a teacher’s ability to create a supportive teaching identity. Not only has my experience taught me the value and necessity of providing effective support to my students, but also what constitutes as a supportive environment.
Redefining What is Relevant & Student Assets:
One of the primary purposes of reading traditional texts, from the Cannon for example, is so social inadequacies may be brought to light, rationalized, and discussed. As James Baldwin states in A Talk To Teachers: “precisely at the point when you begin to develop consciousness, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” In an English class, students should indeed have opportunities to be exposed to social problems and constructs through text, it’s interpreting the relevance of that text, and student assets, which provides a foundation of support.
But isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird relevant? Yes. However, reading this text to a class, of predominantly African-American students, perpetuates minimal change unless they can conceptualize it through familiar lenses. Such lenses include the facilitation and implementation of hip-hop in the classroom: “Hip Hop is an area where we might see theory and practice coming together . . . where we might see an attempt to develop innovative approaches to using Hip Hop as a method for organizing African American youth around issues that are important to their survival.“ (Akom) From my own teaching experience, hip-hop texts enable students to bridge mediums of leisure and familiarity with traditional texts that encompass similar objectives. More simply, it creates a “fun” environment. By providing an outlet of entertainment while simultaneously discussing content, students will not only be able to show understanding, but will want to.
One could argue that rap lyrics don’t contain the same literary merit as traditional novels. By redefining relevant texts, as teachers, we must also redefine student assets. The incorporation of hip-hop into my classroom was entirely justified by the class demographic. In having predominantly African-American students present in my classes: “popular culture texts provide a powerful window through which to view young people’s understanding and responses to this reality… it creates possibilities for students to recognize the commonality and distinctiveness of their conditions.” (Lamont-Hill) Asset based learning not only gives students reassurance in their ability to understand texts and assignments, but also enables them to interact with more challenging texts, given that their background understanding is acknowledged and validated. As previously stated, too often students and teachers lack a sense of trust within the classroom, a trust that encompasses a mutual respect to put forth each other’s best efforts. The shaping of my identity as a teacher, in accordance with these practices, reassures student ability and also provides a learning environment that is conducive for the discussion of relevant social issues.
It was not until this semester I was able to conceptualize, what I consider to be, the most effective way to interact and promote student education. A teacher that places his/her willingness to support its students above achievement creates a better opportunity for students to succeed as a member of a community. According to Hooks: “Engaged pedagogy… It emphasizes wellbeing. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” That’s just it. Schools, similar to my placement, are making attempts to prohibit, expel, and suppress student behavior, which is seen “unsuitable” for a school’s climate. It seems almost silly to ask, how can students become empowered citizens when the schools that they occupy, prevent growth in certain aspects of their school day?
One would hope that a school is a space that promotes creativity, individuality, and expression. Too often do we experience, what appears to be, a lack of understanding between faculty and students. Such misunderstandings, often perspire the use of authoritative action. In an interview conducted by CNN, in regards to police presence in schools, Morehouse College professor explains: “That is the problem. We are outsourcing classroom management to police officers.” In promoting the policing and monitoring of students, students are not exposed to learning environments that are conducive for learning, nor set a positive precedent for our expectations of them as members of society.
During my time as a student teacher, I hope I at least called to question, my students’ perception of what a male teacher is. It is not until you are able to position yourself as an educator, does one realize the learning potential in another human being. Reaching such potential may only be attained through a teacher’s willingness to support, understand, and sacrifice, for the betterment of their students. As a prospective teacher, I will be the first to admit, I have much more to learn in regards to the profession. However, I have learned that the identity a teacher chooses to construct has immense impact on the well being and learning of his/her students.
Akom, A.A. "Critical Hip Hop Pedagogy as a form of LIberatory Praxis." Equity and Excellence in Education 42.1 (2009): 52-66. Web.
Hill, Marc Lamot. "Using Jay-Z to Reflect on Post-9/11 Race Relations." English Journal 96.2 (2006) 23.Web.
Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Lamont-Hill Marc, "New Day." Violent Classroom Arrest Sparks Outrage, CNN. 27 Oct. 2015. Television.