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The Bar and the Mirror: Expectations and Kinship With Our Students

Like many teachers, I spent the long Thanksgiving weekend thinking about my classroom.

I thought about my students and hoped that, like me, they were trying to get some rest (though, as evidenced above, I wasn't too successful). I knew that they had worked hard that trimester—a few revealed that one of their most recent projects had kept them up much, much later than I intended. That, coupled with other final projects due for their other classes, had made for a difficult pre-holiday week for many of them.

I struggled with that. On the one hand, I am a huge proponent of less homework and not overworking students. I don't want to assign things or hold my students to a standard that is so far out of reach it leaves them feeling tired, beat down, and like they can't find success. That said, many of my students commented that, as hard as the project was, they gained some valuable and in-depth understandings in completing it. Like lots of teachers, I was torn between a desire to love and nurture my students and also providing them with structures and boundaries to push their capabilities. 

Of course, this struggle goes far beyond one assignment. Recently, Education Week and NPR did a joint report titled, "Raising Kings" about Ron Brown College Prep. In one episode, the report, which details a year in the lives of students and teachers at a school for Black boys in Washington, D.C., names this struggle when the stakes are much higher:

"They can't just be average."

Charles Curtis is talking about the roughly 100 young, black men in the inaugural freshman class at Ron Brown College Prep, a radical new high school in Washington, D.C.

Curtis, the school psychologist, puts it simply: "There is no place in the world for an average black person."

Yet, as teacher Schalette Gudger notes, it is essential to understand the context students are coming from:

...Many of Gudger's students struggle with the daily challenges of poverty. Some have experienced violence and trauma. So she tries to be flexible. A student falling asleep, for example, shouldn't always be taken as an affront. It may indicate trouble at home:

"Some of them are so on edge that they literally do not sleep at night. So, if you need a break ... if you're comfortable enough here to put your head down, Baby, by all means rest."

So, how do we find balance? What can we use to guide our actions to both nurture and challenge?

As I was reading, I was reminded of a TedxTalk with Fr. Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries about Compassion and Kinship:

At one point in the talk, Fr. Boyle notes that kinship comes with intention:

You don't hold the bar up and ask anybody to measure up. You just show up and you hold the mirror up, and you tell people the truth. You say: You are exactly what God had in mind when God made you. And then you watch people become that truth.

This feels like the place where we meet our students. We must come to our kids with an eye not on only on outcomes but on cultivating kinship with them. When we challenge students to succeed, it has to come with intentionality and purpose: the challenge is not given to measure their worth by our standards but to provide them with the opportunity to see exactly how capable and brilliant we already know they already are. When they don't meet that challenge, it's not a sign of their incompetence but the chance for them to reflect on how they can grow and improve. The work we give our students shouldn't be the measuring stick of their worth, but the mirror in which they can see their growth and future.

Ultimately, teaching is relational work. When the relationship we cultivate with our students is at our core, it allows us to move forward with our students in a way that is compassionate and, most importantly, focused on ensuring and validating their triumphs in our classroom and beyond. 

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