Updated: Jul 14, 2022
You've arrived for the day. Your copies are made. Your presentation is solid. Your coffee is in hand. You. Are. Ready. Just then it hits you. You have 'that' class with 'that' student. The disruptions, the attitude, the despair you feel at not being able to make things better - all of it hits you at once.
This is commonplace for educators. We are tasked, in many cases, with selling a product no one is buying. We are asked to inspire, instruct, engage, and manage students all at once. Some days go better than others.
There are moments when everything is going right. Our direct instruction has all our students engaged. Questions are being asked and not a single student has asked to go to the bathroom. The scaffolds were effective in helping a student who hasn't yet bought in. Your checks for understanding showed major progress with all learners. Your exit tickets showed proficiency with most of your class. On these days, we are reminded of why we became an educator.
But in moments of frustration, particularly with student behaviors, we can run the risk of perpetually complaining. That disappointment and frustration colors all we see - none of the kids are listening, all of the leadership is failing, nothing is helping. The same passion that excites us in the good moments fuels our frustrations when things aren't working out. Students who are not adhering to our behavioral expectations exhaust all our efforts at understanding. When we don't understand the reason for their actions, we fill in the blanks.
We want answers. Is it only my class? What is going on with this student? Who are their influences? Does the guidance department know? How we answer those question is greatly impacted by the contextual understanding we have of our students and their experiences.
I recently watched The Harder They Fall on Netflix (Warning: Spoilers Ahead). The movie chronicles an outlaw who discovers his enemy is being released from prison and goes on the hunt for him. At the onset, we are thrust into the depravity of the antagonist, Rufus Buck. Depicted is one of the most vile acts - a a loving family sits to eat dinner, they join hands to pray, and are disturbed by a knock at the door. The door opens and Buck is standing there - guns drawn. After a few tense moments, the father and mother are murdered. The young boy, who we find out is the protagonist Nat Love, is maimed in the process.
While watching, I noticed my tendency to fill in the blanks. It is human nature to offer explanations for the actions of another when we fail to understand them. When we prescribe remedies and explanations for others, we tend to do so with our biases (and in some cases, bigotry) attached. Here's where the difference educators can make matters. When deficit ideologies take hold of the prescriptions we promote for students, we are stuck in an endless loop of failed remedies and complaints. It is through critical self reflection, humility, grace, and as I posit in this post, context, that we can reverse the effects of these dangerous ideologies.
Rufus Buck, played by Idris Elba, is a ruthless character who demands unquestioned loyalty and adherence. He murdered anyone who doubted, he controlled the whims of others, and tortured those who opposed him. I found myself labeling him: heartless, devoid of any decency, cruel, in need of swift justice. I realized my tendency to shrink the humanity of the character down to the worst things I've seen.
The movie's climactic scene is when Nat Love, now an adult, and Rufus Buck finally meet face to face. We finally reach the scene we hoped for. We want justice, yet witness a conversation that provides nuance.
The conversation clues us in on the trauma experienced by Rufus Buck. Buck shares that his father was a violent man who brutalized his family. In one such attack, Buck's mother went to protect him and his father killed her as a result. The same man who was a tyrant to Buck was the same man who loved and cared for Love. They were half-brothers.
It is here that context truly matters. In our classrooms, we may not see the ruthlessness of Buck but we do witness the effects of trauma. That student that seems apathetic to work with their head down might be dealing with having to be a caregiver for a younger brother or sister. That student who seems defiant might have a hard time dealing with another adult because of the trauma experienced by many adults in their life.
As educators, we incorrectly fill in the blanks for students when we lack context. To be clear, context does not undo the consequences for behavior but it does inform them. In our schools, we must reclaim the benefits to having context for our students.
While not an exhaustive list, I want to suggest three benefits that have impacted my teaching:
When you know how someone has navigated their life, whether through oppression or opportunity, it can provide clarity to student responses we experience.
For example, there was a student in my first teaching experience who I had the honor of teaching two years in a row - from 7th to 8th grade. The first year we got along well. She enjoyed class and thrived in math. The second year, a new student walked in my room. She refused to listen to the majority of my requests, she had a perpetual attitude with me, and her interactions with me seemed rarely positive. It was a short time later that I found out that she was dealing with the divorce of her parents. Her father, a Black male, was leaving the home. I looked like her trauma and she was responding to it. That context didn't excuse her behavior but it did help with empathy because I knew the why.
2. Context provides correction.
Context helps us provide meaningful correction that resonates with the student. Teachers can struggle when attempting to provide support to academic or behavioral gaps and make matters worse. We can apply strict and harsh correction to a student not realizing that the trauma they have experienced renders it useless. Such a student may respond with perceived disrespect because they interpret harsh correction as a lack of love or rejection.
When our highest ethic is control, we will apply correction to ensure silence and compliance. However, the resulting effect on students is a learning devoid of all life. Context can help us keep life in our correction.
3. Context creates.
When we know the triggers students may have, we can create spaces of healing and growth for students. Context allows us to be intentional with our interactions.
Recall that young lady from my first teaching experience. I wish I could share that I immediately searched and found the context in which she resided. I, like many educators, initially responded with tactics to regain my understanding of control. I practiced exclusionary practices that communicated to her that she wasn't wanted. This only exacerbated things between her and I. My practices in the classroom echoes the same message she was receiving at home - she was unwanted; an inconvenience. The use of context would have shaped the environment I was creating. What she needed was a sense of belonging and patience but what she got was exclusion and intolerance. Context should have guided my recommendations toward counseling and healing circles. Instead my ego and control ruled the day and I didn't have the humility necessary to comprehend the context.
We must remember that nothing about this year is normal for us or our students. The past year of virtual instruction has left all of us devoid of the context in which our students reside. The impact of the pandemic will be felt for some time to come. The loss of family, social development, and the like have made it a non-negotiable for educators to have a deeper understanding of our students. If we are to be the kind of educators we aspire to be, we must capture the power of context in our classrooms.