Today I took notes at our staff meeting. Yes, a highly unusual task for me as I just sit and listen most of the time. But today was a day for note taking as we discussed hidden assumptions in life. I have written about this before mainly on this post, but the discussion keeps pulling me back in as I continue to challenge myself.
To assume means to suppose to be the case, without proof and it is this last bit of the definition that really sparked my interest today. When we assume in our classrooms, do we do it because it is easy? Because of intellectual laziness? Or is it some inane need to classify in order to navigate through life?
As teachers we often assume whether we can admit or not. We assume perhaps that a child who rides a certain bus has a laundry list of issues that need correcting. Or a child who comes from a wealthy neighborhood should be fine academically. Perhaps we assume socioeconomic status based on a pair of worn out shoes, rather than stop to ask the child, who may in the end, just really like those shoes. We provide snacks for the kids who live in rental properties, and extra time to do homework because their home-life may be tough, but how often do we ask our middle-class kids whether they are having difficult or whether food is sparse at their house? So in this instance, we assume because we are used to it.
I didn’t start my job with these assumptions, in fact, I prided myself on how much of blank slate I was. And yet, here they are now, fighting me every day. We see our class list and images and connotations frequent our thoughts until we meet the kids and then (hopefully) realize how wrong we are. We base our class lists for the coming year on even more assumptions about how a certain student may be do in a certain class based on the assumptions we make about that teacher. Sometimes others correct us and sometimes the assumptions is given more life because others nod their head, already victims of the same cloaked inferences.
So why are assumptions bad? As a victim of many, I can tell you they diminish you as a person unless you fight hard enough to break out of them. Because I moved a lot as a child due to my mother being awarded Fullbright scholarships, I was assumed to be transient with everything that entails. Because I was taught English at a very young age, and thus was the only 1st grader fluent in English, I was assumed to be gifted, which I am not. Because I was raised by an incredible single parent, I was assumed to have “daddy” issues or be the victim of a lackluster childhood, when the opposite is true. My mother’s scholarships means I learned what it means to be a global citizen. Being fluent in English means that I can teach my class with a native accent, rather than the awful Danish one (Lars Ulrich anyone?), and being raised by the most passionate and inspiring of mother’s who later married her soulmate gave me a role-model that I will forever try to emulate both in life and in love. In short, my “messed up life” on paper proved to be a fantastic journey.
As we pass our assumptions on in the hallways, meetings, or lounge conversations, we breathe new life into them. When we have one more child that fits the bill of what we thought they would be like, then we pat ourselves on the back, and know that we were right to categorize them such in the first place. Every year, as more students come our way, we strengthen our categories, our distinctions, and it becomes harder to see the truth, to wipe them all away.
Some will argue that there is nothing wrong with assuming certain things, and I agree that this is not a black and white discussion. Yet something has to be done with the monologue constantly running in our heads. When we do not speak our assumptions aloud, no one is there to refute them, and so they take on more “truthiness” until we don’t remember a time when we didn’t know this to be a fact. We have to fight our assumptions before we make them truths, the future of our students are at stake.
When asked to describe my “aha” moment in teaching, I was flooded with a plethora of images. Imagine a montage of every day in your teaching life. My memories are a swirling mist of faces smiling at me as I remember the different children, classrooms and settings that filled the years. Each day as a teacher was special. Every child that crept into my heart defines my career. I could never choose just one!
Of course, there have been bumps along the way. There were days that I wanted to pull my hair out and run screaming from the classroom. However, when I look back, a child was never the catalyst. They were my soft-spot to land even on the worst of days. Once engaged with a student, the rest of the world faded away. They were all that mattered.
I remember Josh who came to me as a third grader and couldn’t read. His parents and I put our heads together and came up with a plan. We worked as a team and built his skills as well as his confidence. By the way, he is doing well in college now. I remember Taylor who was the perfect little angel in the classroom, but I knew she wasn’t learning. Through testing, we discovered she had severe ADD and with the right plan, began to flourish. I was so grateful I trusted my instinct.
I remember on September 11th the world changed for everyone, but for one of my students, it was intimately personal. When this student’s parents called me to let me know what was happening and people were scrambling to get to school and chaos was everywhere, this child and I went for a long walk. (I was a head of school at this point and could do this.) Throughout the next month as she grieved for her lost family member, she and I talked and read books together. I hope I was a place for her to heal. I will never forget her showing me the dust from the collapsed towers.
Then there was Izzy! She and I bonded the moment she put her hand in mine as I guided her to the classroom. She came to me significantly below grade level and was raw from the experiences she had in a former school. Together we taught each other so much. She is on grade level now and I learned to be a better teacher through working with her.
I walk into a classroom each day grateful. George E. Fraiser said, “No one should teach who is not a bit awed by the importance of the profession.” I’m thankful that each day gives me “aha” moments of joy. I search every day for a way to connect with students, so that when they leave me, they will remember that learning is always filled with “aha” moments.