School Climate & Safety Opinion

Vulnerability as Empowerment in the Classroom

By Christina Torres — September 09, 2015 2 min read
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It’s back-to-school time for many students and teachers this week. For many, it means that 20 to 120 new faces enter our classrooms and our lives.

Jessica, a fifth-grade teacher in Chicago, wrote this beautiful piece on the vulnerability of her new students after asking them to share how they saw themselves reflected in literary characters:

I was in awe of the bravery of these kids. To speak this freely in front of their classmates. To tell these things to me, their teacher, who they barely even know at this point. That is bravery.
What they showed me is their capability to make themselves vulnerable. To be willing to share the deepest parts of themselves. To leave behind the worry of how others would react and share these moments and glimpses into their lives with us all.

The piece hits on an aspect of education that is often forgotten: students not only look to us for content, they also can experience either empowerment or oppression based on the culture of our classrooms.

Let’s be honest: current educational practice values a narrative that oppresses communities and students of color, as Dr. Camika Royal writes about in GOOD Magazine:

The first public schools in this nation were charity schools for the children of the indigent and immigrants. Curricula pushed assimilation, acculturation, and morality. Schools sought to educate students just enough so they would be suitable for unskilled labor. Management of our unskilled labor forces would come from those who could afford to educate their children in schools not limited to assimilation and acculturation.

We have to face this with our students head on. We must not only acknowledge this truth with students but also attempt to build trust in a space that has failed to validate their identities.

Here’s the thing: we have all been biased, and we have been hurt by biases. As Jay Smooth discusses in his seminal talk, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race,” “the race constructs that we live in in America were shaped ... for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts.” Because of this, we “will never bat a thousand when it comes to dealing with race issues.” We’re going to mess up, which is difficult when the stakes feel so high.

The thing is, our students are going to face racism, bias, and privilege whether we discuss them or not, as Vox, Huffington Post, and The New Republic remind us. We can either run from these discussions, or we can model a courageous vulnerability that we know our students give us every day when they trust us with their hearts and minds. That requires a level of honesty about the difficult truths of racism and bias, as well as the willingness to admit we as teachers are imperfect as well.

I want my students to know that I make the same mistakes and have the same fears they experience when we open up about race and identity in the classroom. In doing so, I hope to validate their struggles and empower them to take on these challenging topics as we move forward this year.

As we begin the year, it’s important to remember that our classrooms shouldn’t be a one-way stream feeding from teacher to student. These discussions must be communal and the relationship reciprocal. I have to show I have skin in the game and will put in what I’m asking of them. My students deserve nothing less.

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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.

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