To the Teacher Who Said Half of Her Class Didn’t “Belong” There
I have probably said this too, at one time, though now I am ashamed to admit it. The educational system conditions us to think that students must keep pace—and that as good teachers, it is our role to must ensure that they keep pace.
But you know what? We learn at different paces. Or maybe we should not think of the word “pace” at all when we think of learning. Learning isn’t something that can be rushed or completed; instead, it’s an ongoing, recursive process. There are some lessons I am constantly relearning because I’m always forgetting.
If a student shows up in our class, that student belongs there, no matter the student’s skills or lack thereof. We are not gatekeepers, but rather openers of the gates of the mind.
There are many students enrolled in my classes this semester who came into my class unprepared. Some of these students did not have the time or discipline to succeed, others did not have the environment or technology necessary for a Zoom class, and many struggled with COVID-related anxiety and depression. Some of my students were dealing with all three problems, plus a learning disability or job loss.
This was not their fault, and it was not my fault, either. We cannot “fix” our students, and we should not look at struggling students as problems to be fixed. All we can offer, humbly, are opportunities for learning, good questions, concern, and love.
I used to try very hard as a teacher to fix everything. To fix myself, when I saw evidence that my students were disengaged. To fix my students’ writing. To fix everyone’s problems. But this attitude only brought me a desperate, sinking feeling that I was always failing. I think this is why teaching is so hard: We know that if the goal is to fix things, then we are always failing. So much goes wrong in our students’ lives that we have no control over, and even the things we think we control, we might not.
We only really have control over the tone of our classroom and what values we show our students through our actions and words. I want the tone of my classroom to be joyful, open, and caring. I want to show my students that I value their presence in the learning space, even if they can’t do the work. I want them to feel that they belong, even if they aren’t ready for the work just yet.
Who taught me this? A student, of course. This student only showed up to my Zoom classes once in a while and he did very little work in my class. If I’m being honest, I thought the lesser of him for these things. But I was wrong to think this. He wrote something really lovely in his final reflection that made me feel embarrassed about my judgment.
His words say it best:
Dear Mrs. Hurley,
Thank you for having me in your wonderful class. I learned that reading and writing is not bad after all. In high school I hated it, it just wasn’t my thing. After you gave us assignments such as the essay about happiness, I started typing like crazy and all sorts of ideas popped into my head and you changed my whole perspective on writing. […] I’ve always loved reading, when I read it felt like everything around me froze. In the future I would like to read more fluently and pronounce bigger words exactly as they sound instead of mispronouncing them. I still need to work on that. To be honest with you, I don’t even think I am going to pass [your class] because I missed assignments. I’m very sorry if I couldn’t attend your Zoom classes frequently because I work full time, so coming home on time to attend class was hard, but I tried because your class was my favorite out of every other class I’ve taken. Whenever I read or write I’m going to remember what you’ve said.
How could this student “not belong”—in my class or anywhere? Our students are precious visitors in our learning spaces. Our positive impact on these visitors might not always be visible. Our students’ potential and inner worlds are often not visible, either. How might our students experience education differently if it were a place free of judgment? What if we as educators stopped trying to fix our students? What if we stopped trying to fix ourselves?