Different Needs, Speaking For Ourselves and Creating Healthy Spaces

[This post had its roots in my thinking about some of the very ugly behavior that happened on Twitter this weekend. Melinda Anderson and Sabrina Stevens were attacked by teachers for speaking their minds around issues of race and gender. Sabrina, in a public Facebook post, talked about how moments like this - and there are far too many - also speak to why many parents of color are so distrustful of public schools. That led me down this path of thinking. I was deeply heartened to see the hashtags #ISupportMDA and #ISupportSabi as a response to the attacks they were subject to online. Perhaps, this is one way we can all start to make sure that we all can support students more powerfully as well. - Chris]

Teachers’ and students’ interests don’t always align. Sometimes, it’s for reasons that are easy to unpack – a teacher wants a student to do work that a student doesn’t want to do for no other reason that it isn’t a subject of interest to them. Sometimes, it’s for much more complex reasons that involve issues of race, class, gender and power that too often go unexamined in the halls and classrooms of schools. Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit and I Won’t Learn from You by Herbert Kohl are two excellent texts about this – both are must reads for educators, in my opinion.

This matters because we have seen, too often, different educational factions claim to speak for children in schools. This cuts across the edu-political spectrum, and I think it’s time to stop doing it. No one has a monopoly on knowing what students need and want in any given situation, and it is almost a guarantee that if one tries to claim to be that voice, it is inauthentic. And yet, throughout the edu-political battles, you see organizations fighting over who best represents the children.

Let’s simply say this, to say, “I know what is best for the children,” is to run a deep risk of engaging in paternalism. And when that is coupled with teachers who are of different backgrounds – be they racial, socio-economic, etc… – there is an even deeper risk of engaging in colonial patterns of thought and behavior.

Our goal as teachers should be, simply, to help students to figure out for themselves what is best for them.

So we have to be honest about our institutional needs. We cannot and should not assume that students’ needs are best served when teachers’ needs are completely met. In fact, we can probably assume that they are not. And I would argue this – when we assume that teacher needs automatically and always trump student needs we do damage. More to the point, we do damage to the students who are most likely to feel disenfranchised from societal institutions like school, often times our students of color or our students from the most challenged economic situations. This is another one of those moments where if we can reverse that trend, we will create policies in our schools that are actively better for students of color, with the added benefit of creating schools that are better for all students as well.

So how do we proceed?

This requires a deep shift in thinking for many teachers. It requires viewing the classroom as negotiated, co-created space. It also requires acknowledging that here is an inherent power dynamic between teachers and students that can make honest co-creation of space more difficult for students. It is, in fact, a risky proposition for a teenager to speak their needs – their truth – to a teacher who is not acknowledging the need to listen to it and take action.

There are ways to do this as a school community. Teachers and students can co-create shared norms for the classroom. Students can be full voting members of teacher hiring committees. Project-based assignments can be open-ended to allow for student choice and voice in meaningful ways. But all of that can fall short of the goal of truly negotiated and co-created spaces if there is not a mechanism for resolving the inevitable conflicts between a student and a teacher in a way that honors the needs of both.

This is one powerful purpose that Advisory can serve. The advisor-student relationship can – and should – include moments where advisors can serve as advocates and mediators when conflicts between students and teachers occur. The dynamic between a student and a teacher changes when another teacher is in the room with the express purpose of serving as the student advocate with the charge of navigating the space between.

When we do this, we actually create the space for teaches and students to be more honest with each other. I have seen SLA teachers engage in some of the most profoundly vulnerable and honest moments with kids in these mediations. There is something very powerful when a teacher says to a student, “This is what I need.” It turns out, it is a much more powerful moment than the artificial moment of a teacher trying to tell a student that something is actually good for the student when it’s really what the teacher needs. It also creates the space for students to speak to their needs as well. And in the honest discussion of each others needs and wants, we can find common ground. We can find compromise. We can find the space where we can come to agreement about what is the best solution for all parties, even if it is not the perfect solution for any one party.

And yes, in many ways, this requires a profound rethinking of the role of the teacher in the classroom for many people. It requires more humility than many teachers are used to showing in the classroom, and it requires a great deal of inner strength to have that humility. It means understanding that while teachers are authoritative voices in the room, they should not be authoritarian. It requires understanding there are an incredibly diverse set of needs in the room – including our own – and that navigating those needs is challenging. It requires learning more mediation skills than teachers are generally taught. It means inviting every other teacher in the building into your classroom as observer, advocate, mediator, negotiator. It means understanding that, while the outside world is very hard on teachers right now, that never – ever – makes it o.k. for teachers to lash out at others because of their own pain.

Finally, it means understanding that our classrooms and our schools will be better healthier places when everyone in them can feel like they are places where no one get everything they want, but each person can feel like she is heard, she is cared for, and she gets what she most needs.

cross-posted at practicaltheory.org/blog.

Chris Lehmann is the founding principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a progressive science and technology high school in Philadelphia, PA. that was recognized by Ladies Home Journal as one of the Ten Most Amazing Schools in the US and was recognized as an Apple Distinguished School in 2009 and 2010. Chris won the Lindback Award for Excellence in Principal Leadership in the School District of Philadelphia in April 2012, and has been honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for his work in education reform. In June 2010, Chris was named as one of the “30 Most Influential People in EdTech” by Technology & Learning Magazine. Read more at his blog, http://practicaltheory.org/blog.