March 29, 2001

Magical moments

Every once in a while, students will say or do something that takes your breath away, and you trust that something you did as a teacher helped set that moment up. Today, I was lucky, and a student was luckier.

A student group in each of my sections today organized a part of class around data on student and teacher demographics. In the afternoon class, the student group left on the dry-erase board the results of an informal survey in class, showing that most of the class thought that having role models from the same ethnic/racial group as students was important. Considering the nature of the data (showing that teachers are far more likely to be white females than their students in elementary and, to a lesser extent, secondary schools), that was not a surprising result.

I wanted to shake them up a bit to get them to look critically at what they had "voted." Since most are intending to be teachers (this in a Social Foundations of Education class presumptive teachers need to take in the college), I asked a question that would get them to think about their own capacity to model and make connections with students: "Are there responsibilities of teachers to be role models for students who may not easily identify with them along racial, gender, social class, or other dimensions?" Most teachers think of themselves as being able to make such connections, and the class quickly came up with many reasons or ways to make such connections.

Then one student in the back of the class raised his hand and explained that he was changing his mind. He had thought that having role models was important but realized that if he followed that logic to its extreme, African-American students should only be taught by African-American teachers, Latino/a students should only be taught by Latino/a teachers, and we'd be back to segregation. Discussion continued, in part raising issues that maybe the diversity of a teaching force is as important for white students as others, or maybe the individual qualities of teachers are important, and by the end of class about half of the students had voiced their opinion that an individual teacher does have the capacity to reach students who are different in terms of gender, ethnicity/race, social class, and the presence/type of disability. Then, at the end, having documented how their views were different when talking about individual teachers, I put some statistics from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education indicating that new teachers are still far disproportionately likely to be white (over 80%) and asked them if they were concerned. Yes, I wanted to leave them at the end just a little unbalanced. At this point in the semester, especially in this particular section, I am confident they won't take it personally. (If you're a student reading this and I've made a horrible misjudgment, please tell me!)

Changing one's mind in the middle of a vigorous class discussion is a type of bravery on the part of students, and it requires a type of intellectual honesty that is wonderful to witness. That made my week.

Posted by sdorn at March 29, 2001 06:00 PM | TrackBack
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