Does the way I think, and therefore speak to myself affect my dialogue with my students? Absolutely. As a teacher it is easy to feel discouraged, and defeated. In grad school you don't learn how to stop the waves of emotions that hit you when a student seems to just not get it, no matter how much you differentiate. You are not prepared for the hurt and heartbreak that children face, that fall in waves. A bad day is unusually bad. But somehow in the midst of it all comes this unspeakable strength to stand.
My students teach me. Teaching at the middle school level has made my consider the ways in which educators engage in dialogue. I have several middle schoolers who will speak to me, and share their hearts, re-teaching me things I have long forgotten.
When students sit with me, I make sure to listen. I ask simple questions, like, "Why do you say that," "What makes you feel that way," "Can you clarify what you mean," "I'm not sure I understand what you mean, could you say it again?" These questions teach me what it means to listen and learn, not to teach, but to facilitate conversation. I don't provide an opinion, I don't provide advice, I give students the space to express. This is something that I didn't often receive as a child --- the opportunity to be heard. My old school Haitian-American background precluded the ability to always voice my opinion. It was more "be seen, not heard." I want my students to always have a voice.
In class, when silence is needed, especially when explaining new material, I tell my students, "I never want to silence you, but I do need the quiet in order for you to understand this material." Dialogue often involves silence. Dialogue does not happen without listening. Balancing the hearing, the talking, and the being heard is difficult at not only the middle school level, but even as an adult.
This topic is relevant.
It's applicable to today. It was applicable yesterday. And as a black woman, I feel that this battle of establishing dialogue when I don't feel heard is persistently with me. Throughout high school, college, graduate school, and even at times during my working life, I describe myself as first having no voice, finding it, having it silenced, and building it again.
My second tenure at Columbia University (TC) was about discovering the power of the different types of discourse that take place in the spaces and positions people occupy. Positionality matters. Race matters. Gender matters. Different aspects of our identity affect how discourse is received, and how discussions are perceived. During my second semester at TC, as we discussed conflict and collaboration, in one of my classes, I purposely tried to take several steps back. I did not volunteer to facilitate, until the day I was in a group where all, except for me, had already served as facilitators. I was conscious of not wanting to appear dominating, because I have learned that perception is often taken for reality. This constant awareness of perception is oftentimes limiting.
It's important to point out that discourse should not be equated with dialogue. Discourse can occur without the consideration of the dominant ideology that may be influencing perspective, and I did not want to be the person “in charge” of pointing that out. I have struggled through the years to find my voice, I believe now as an educator I am finding its harmony and melody. Yes, dear reader, the caged bird has begun to sing.
But sometimes there are those who attempt to silence my song. As a teacher I seek to enhance my stance and role as a participant-observer. I consider myself as a facilitator amongst a body of learners. Now, as I continue to grow, I find that my conscious will not allow me to keep silent or ignore facts that needed to be checked. But how do I do this a black woman? How do I check facts without being "checked back into my place?" It's interesting to be a teacher. It's even more interesting to be a special educator.
In special education it's the little things that prevent dialogue that is co-generative. Things like
- being kept off an email.
- being kept out of the decision making process for a class
- not being kept in the loop about changes to the curriculum that you may not be privy to due to your position
- being consulted about the matters of scope and sequence, or learning objectives after those you teach with have already consulted other parties, that do not teach the class.
That's what it feels like to be a special educator. Many times it feels like exclusion. I thank God for that sort of exclusion because it allows me to better understand students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), and their positionality in the classroom. To those who say these aspects of one's identity don't matter - I tell you they do. They most certainly do. To be continued...
Ms. St. Jean
Native New Yorker teaching and living the middle school life, using this site to keep it 100. My students are the embodiment of joy.