A sunny window was my escape from the constant prodding. Twice a day, I would use what little strength I had left to drag the one chair in my hospital room to that window. The sun had a way of helping me find what I had lost in that cold room days before: control, visibility and voice, some of the qualities that underscore my humanity. I was worn down. Nurses, doctors and medical students would walk into my room countless times a day to poke, press and pinch as they unleashed their barrage of questions and opinions. The morning it had become unbearable, I raised a hand to the doctor and her group of students to firmly pronounce, “That’s enough.”
My experiences as a patient not long ago mirror those of many of our students: each day existing in the space of our classrooms, voiceless, invisible, perhaps looking for ways to escape and bear witness to their stories. Metaphorically, we love to prod our students. We poke them, pinch them, question them and lead them as we make our way through academic requirements, tests and countless lessons.
Our students, inherently human, are wiser than we often realize though. They try to remind us, sometimes in very interesting ways, to look a little closer, to take our time with them, to see who they really are. They scream with their eyes and through their actions that they are more than a number, more than their worst behavior, more than their most obvious talent and way more immense than their biggest failure. They want us to bear witness to their humanity, to their story.
By diving into my personal experience and identifying difficult emotions and thoughts, I was able to cement my commitment to students. An exercise in self-reflection can be both transformative and reaffirming. Give it a try:
- Recall a time when you felt invisible or voiceless or a time when someone other than you attempted to define your identity. Make a list of the emotions that accompany these memories.
- Recall a time when you have witnessed students feeling invisible or voiceless or times when you have taken the liberty to publicly label or define a student one-dimensionally. Identify what you think those students felt. Add those emotions to your list.
- Next to each item in the list, write one learning or social behavior that was influenced—or could have been influenced—by that emotion. For example, defiance would affect behavior, and distrust would affect participation and corrode relationships.
- Use your list to reassert your personal values by identifying counter-emotions or beliefs that you unconditionally uphold in your classroom.
There are countless resources to help you slow down and see your students, including these from Teaching Tolerance: activities that blend identity exploration and art, lessons that guide the exploration of our multiple identities, poetry to express our racial identities and projects to highlight family histories in your classroom. In addition, to build community and safety, try these 20 Face to Face Advisories.
Life has a way of teaching you lessons, and the days I spent as a patient left a mark. My invisibility grew into a responsibility to ensure that I honor the beautiful complexity of my students by slowing down and seeing them. It’s my duty to facilitate opportunities for them to have a say, to define their own story, to be just human. I hope you’ll join me.
Garayúa-Tudryn is a school counselor at a dual-language elementary school in North Carolina. She is also a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.