If you read my blog regularly, you might remember that I had a – ahem – challenging class last semester. You might remember because I wrote about that class here and here and here – and that was just the first few weeks. Oh my.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I *liked* the students. They are fun and funny and smart and honest and many other wonderful things, but teaching them all in one classroom for two and half hours (thank you, Covid) was not straightforward. In the end, I did an ok job – not great, but ok.
I thought what I was most worried about was reading and writing skills that had atrophied a little during online learning, but when I reread my blogs, I remember that we were also working on social skills and work habits. It was a lot.
Since then, I’ve talked about this class in two separate PD sessions where teachers and coaches from across schools were planning for “de-streaming.” (Next year, our school board is ending streaming for grade 9 and 10 students in all subjects. This will require a shift in our mindset and our teaching practices.) The first time, a Black educator I didn’t know but who is deeply dedicated to equity, pushed me to redefine what qualifies as success for my students. I bristled; he suggested that for some kids success is “just crossing the school’s threshold.” I’ve done enough work with students damaged by our system to know that he is right, but inside my head I wanted to scream, “That may be enough for you in your position, but once they cross the threshold and they come to class, then success changes – and then *I* have to give them a grade.” I didn’t say that, our breakout room ended, and I let it sit in the back of my mind, where I could come back to worry over it from time to time.
Today, I brought up this class again. I talked about students who refused to read or who did very little work. I was lucky enough to be in a group that allowed me to speak openly. I spoke about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and my fear of what happens when we allow students to move through the system without the skills they need for success. One colleague – an Indigenous teacher and deep thinker – challenged me to think about grapho-centrism and what that means for our students and our culture. This resonated with me because I was recently on a podcast panel where we discussed multimodal essays and the myriad ways that people can express complex critical thinking.
I sat with my colleague’s ideas for a few minutes, but soon I was worrying aloud – again – about how I can help students become literate, be able to write well. At this moment, another colleague – younger than me and also fiercely dedicated to equity – said, “I notice how much you’re using the word I.”
Whoa. She was right. I was centering myself. Oh, sure, my focus was firmly on my students, but it was also on what *I* could do to help them. When I stepped back, I realized that I have now heard from two colleagues – gently, kindly – that I am, perhaps, too much in the centre of my practice, that I might be playing the role, even unintentionally, of “white saviour” – at least in this instance. (Though they never said those words.”
That’s a tough one for me. As a teacher, I want to help – I mean, it’s kind of my job to help. On the other hand, as a white woman who is constantly working towards anti-racism and equity, I know I need to “hold myself in healthy distrust” (Kike Ojo-Thompson). My colleagues’ questioning and observing has me thinking about the ways in which I can re-centre student voice and goals. I don’t know the answers yet, but I know that if I’m talking about a class, and the most common pronoun I use is “I”, then I need to rebalance my thinking because it’s not about me.
It’s good to have such thoughtful observant colleagues. This is how we get better – together.