School Climate & Safety Opinion

There Is Beauty in the Struggle: Exploring Identity in the Classroom

By Christina Torres — September 01, 2015 3 min read
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“So,” Dr. Will started as we began to wrap up a conversation about race and education. “What’s your advice to folks that don’t want to get involved in these discussions?”

I paused, silent for a moment. Two parts of me struggled internally.

A part of me wanted to be frustrated. Why should we keep waiting for them, the people who want to be “colorblind”? These conversations are happening, whether those people are a part of them or not.

Yet, there’s a part of me that knows that there is still so much I don’t know, and so many people who could have given up on me. I can’t count the number of times I have misspoken or done something that necessitated redirection. I am still learning, and that process has been incredibly challenging, yet fulfilling.

Other people had given me the benefit of the doubt; I want to try and keep that generosity of spirit alive.

To paraphrase, I ended up sharing both of these sentiments in response: “Struggling with these is things important, and we are all part of the work... but there is a clear shift to discuss the fact that privilege and bias matter, so you better get ready for the ride.”

I had the hardest time coming up with a name for this blog. For a while, the best I could think of was “Christina’s Corner.” I was about to email EdWeek in defeat when I returned to the roots of why I do what I do: I emailed my former students.

The new school year had just begun, and I told them I wanted their input on something important since they were the reason for my work. I also included parents and a few colleagues. I’m doing this crazy thing, I told them. What should I call it?

As usual, my students did not disappoint. Some of their suggestions made me smile: Let’s Talk Torres (an early favorite), The Christina Chronicles (perhaps the title of my memoir), The Torres Teaching Tangent of Totally Terrific Topics (I do love alliteration).

Some made me think: Words Can Hurt Too, I’ve Seen It Both Ways, Cultural Cultivation. Each response showed me a small side of that student that surprised and delighted me.

They also gave me something more than a title. Their responses reminded me that my students are so much more than knowledge on a test or the sliver of themselves I see in my class over a year. They are smart, funny, nuanced people that are way more than I could have shown in a grade book. After my students leave my classroom, it is not their past grades in my class that stick with me; it’s the relationships I have with them that I can keep building.

Sometimes, it’s easy to break our students into the categories we use to measure data points: Latino. Black. English Language Learner. Title I.

Yes, in some ways these categories might define aspects of our classrooms, but we shouldn’t let them be the only thing that defines our students. I always hear teachers say our work is about giving students opportunity: opportunity to grow, to make a change, to decide what they want for themselves.

To give students as many opportunities as I can, I have to meet them not just on the path society has set them on, but at the intersection of the nuanced and multi-faceted people they are. This means including and celebrating all the various parts of their identity--race, culture, gender, sexuality--that they bring to their desks each day. To do otherwise would be unworthy of their trust and this work.

It’s not easy. I understand why people try and ignore talking about these topics. They can force us to question everything we have believed, and perhaps hold ourselves accountable for the times we let our beliefs fall into the lazy, easy stereotypes about our students.

Yet, there is great beauty in that struggle. To struggle with these topics is a testament to the importance and power of our work. It is that challenge that can ultimately lead to the joy of truly empowering our kids. Actively working through our identities and biases with our students can create a vulnerability, trust and strength that is much deeper than content knowledge. It can help us validate not just our students, but their communities and perhaps even ourselves in the process.

It’s not the easiest place to stand, but I’m now choosing to embrace nuance and complexity in my students and their identities. I am waiting at that intersection of education and the many aspects of our students’ lives outside the classroom, eager to see what comes by. I hope you meet me there.

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.