In schools, our children are often judged by one descriptor – words that are not of their choosing. Black kid. Trouble maker. Under achiever. Poor kid. These words are one-dimensional substitutes for relationships. These words set up our kids for failure. These words say, educators don’t see the most important aspects of who these kids are and they also don’t care.
They don’t have to care. Imagine pulling up to the drive-through window at McDonalds, and the team member passes you a bag of food, saying, “This is what we think you should have today. If you don’t like it, or can’t eat it, it only means that something is wrong with you. NEXT!” It would never happen. The store wouldn’t stay open past the lunch hour. And yet, that is what educators do when they don’t care enough to find out who our children are or what kind of education they want and need.
In education today, we often hear terms like culturally relevant, culturally responsive, or culturally competent education. Some of these terms refer to a specific conceptual framework, others are more generic terms for an approach to education. All of these terms refer to education that matters and education that works, because the educators providing it can say to their students, I see you and I care. I may not see ALL of you, but I see enough of you to recognize that you are a whole human being. I do not engage with you as a one-dimensional figure. I do not limit my interactions to generalizations based on my stereotype of you. I care enough to get to know you and engage in ways that are meaningful to you.
Whatever you do, whoever you are, the key to success is a meaningful relationship. By meaningful I mean that you must engage with people in a way that communicates you know who they are and that you care about them.
If you were to write five words that describe who, what or how you are, what would be on your list? Go ahead. Write five words that capture who you are.
Rank the words in your list according to how important those descriptors are to you. Now cross one word off the list. Is that uncomfortable? Cross another word off. How well do the remaining words describe you? One more, and now a fourth, so that now you are described by only one word. This is your one-dimensional self-description, and while this is the word from your list that is most important to you, it is not enough to describe who you are as an individual. To know you, a person has to recognize that there are many descriptors of you which, together, comprise the whole human being that you are.
I see you and I care.
In schools, everyone is concerned about education that results in high student achievement. This kind of education requires risk-taking and faith-making. Students have to be vulnerable, taking the risk to admit they don’t know it all and may not know what they need to know. Teachers have to persevere with compassion, showing that they believe – they have the faith – that students can learn and that they know how to teach them. This can’t be done if the relationships are superficial and shallow. This can’t be done if there is no passion for learning or compassion for the learner. There will be no risk-taking or faith-making if the teacher doesn’t know who the student is.
The terms culturally responsive, culturally relevant, culturally proficient education all speak to the need for building relationships among students, teachers, parents and their communities – relationships in which people can genuinely say: I see you and I care. I see you are more than the color of your skin. I see you are more than your economic status. I see you are more than your job title. I see you, and I respond to you in a way that is meaningful, and helpful, to you. The first step is to show personal interest in the students; listen to them and learn their stories. Remember they are more than the one or two categories that may be used to describe them. The next step, is to engage with their parents as partners; this could be started with a home visit.
I see you and I care.
Schools and educators that adopt this mindset develop authentic relationships by learning about the students and their communities. These authentic relationships work in more than one direction. Students are invited to connect meaningfully with their teachers. Parents know their kids, what ignites their children’s passions and what triggers their children’s fears and insecurities, so that they can advocate for their kids. Community members build relationships with educators as partners who have high expectations and who will hold educators accountable for what they do – and what they don’t do.
I’ve seen this happen, but not often, because it is not easy. For most educators, making this shift takes being on a team, in a school, if not a district, that is committed to delivering the educational experiences that will be effective for their particular student population. The work includes gathering data about the students and their communities, assessing needs, and aligning resources and talents with those needs. The process requires strong leadership, committed team members, community collaboration, and patience as everyone works toward the goal. People are not one-dimensional and the education they receive should not be one-dimensional, either.
Education is not fast food. The American educational system is not McDonalds. It is a complex structure that works well only when all the stakeholders relate to one another in ways that say, “I see you and I care.”