Ending the Blame Game in the Classroom: Opening Up Dialogue Between Teachers, Students and Families Through Compassion, Relationships, and Empathetic Communication
I began my teaching career in a small middle school in a small, rural Hawaiian town. I had just come from the mainland and had very little knowledge about Hawaiian living or the lives of my students. We were in the midst of No Child Left Behind, and my school had just been classified as restructuring. As a staff we attended meetings and learned strategies that could help our student become proficient on the Hawaii State Assessment. We mapped our curriculum to ensure that our instruction was always aligned with state standards. My classroom was visited by specialist looking for evidence of student engagement. In response, I made sure that my students were on task. I constantly circulated the room and assigned homework. I used all the strategies that I had in my teacher education bag of tricks. Homework turn in rates were low, so my team created a study hall where students could complete unfinished assignments. I graded work assigning points to assignments based on the amount of effort that they took to complete. The students on top remained on top and the students on the bottom remained on the bottom. Reading scores remained low. Students with attendance problems still had attendance problems. I was left hopeless and frustrated. Open houses flopped and my classroom remained empty during parent teacher conferences. I blamed students, parents, communities, and the school. I also blamed myself.
A few years later, I moved over to teaching alternative education. Again I was working with a population of struggling students. This time I approached the classroom differently. I talked with my students. I spoke honestly with them about education and the forces of the school system. We shared stories and analyzed issues of social justice – especially ones that impacted their lives directly such as Arizona's senate bill 1070. I took steps towards understanding my students families and the struggles they faced at home. They shared their stories with me.
Occassionally I would get asked about my job from both fellow teachers and peers not involved in education. I would get asked, “What do you do about students who don't value education or whose families don't value education?” I would also hear the reference that particular cultures didn't value education. By this time I knew these blanket statements were full of assumption and unsupported ideas. I listened to my students, and I had heard their stories. I understood that some of them wanted a high school diploma so badly even though their attendance did not reflect this desire. They had to go to work for their families. I heard some say they were fearing deportation. I guessed that one slept in park; he was always the first to school for breakfast.
Underachieving, disenfranchised, and marginalized populations of students can be a source of frustration and irritation for teachers and schools. These students might bring undesirable behavior to the classroom such as disruption, truancy, and lack of interest in content. Teachers struggle to engage parents and open up dialogue through phone calls, parent teacher conferences, and open houses. Traditional methods of engaging students are unsuccessful. Eventually, this overwhelming situation may overpower the teacher's stamina and bag of tricks. This can result in the blame game. Finger pointing and unsupported statements suggesting that the student, the student's family, or the student's culture do not value education.
These assumptions lack contextual support or understanding. In addition, blanket assumptions immediately end the pursuit of learning and discovering ways to engage the student in learning while justifying apathy towards disenfranchisement. The driving forces in our educational system are based on normative behaviors defined by the dominant cultural discourse. Assumptions of what it looks like to care about education overpowers the motivation to discover and unwrap the lived experience of the student and her family. Assumptions can be unpacked and communication can be approached from different perspectives for the purpose of providing an approach to successful education.
Schooling tends to promote hierarchical, context-free relationships that determine our interactions and communication patterns between one another. Hierarchical relationships simplify relationships that are actually much more complex. Hierarchies function as pyramids; power and knowledge are handed down from one level to another (Volk, 1005). As a new teacher, I situated myself in a position of power and provided my students with limited opportunities to move outside of their narrow bottom portion of the pyramid. By shifting the relationship from a hierarchy to a holarchy, complexities, ambiguities, and interconnections will reveal themselves (Volk, 1995). A holarchical relationship can be visualized as a circular structure embedded with other circles. Participant still maintain roles. The teacher is still a teacher, but students are communicating and participating with learning.
The holarchical pattern allows for the presence of true dialogue while the hierarchical pattern creates dialogical interactions that manifest as the issuing of communiques. In true dialogue both parties are on a common search for knowledge. Communication passes through a point of empathy and is inculcated with humility, trust, hope and love (Freire, 1994). Hierarchical dialogue issues communiques and lacks understanding. True dialogue encourages discourse and supports the voices of students especially those who reside in the margins. Dialogue can help us as teachers to understanding students who seemingly don't care about education. By talking to our students and communicating with them, we learn the contexts and complications that influence their lives and impact the behaviors that reveal themselves in our classrooms.
The change in relationship and the participation in dialogue can be supported by the introduction of the non-western definition of compassion to the equation. The blame game neglects to truly understand the students and their context. The Dalai Lama (1993) suggests that realizing sameness decreases separation while encouraging trust, respect and openness to differences (Dalai Lama, 1993). The non-western definition of compassion is not hierarchical but supports the presence of a holarchy through empathetic understanding as opposed to feelings of pity. The introduction of compassion can help us as teachers to see that while we are frustrated with our students, our students are also experiencing struggle and possibly feeling defeated.
The blanket, unsupported assumptions that students, their families, and their cultures don't care about education cease to exist when we respect the humanity of our students. We can treat them as complex individuals. When our students enter the classroom, they bring with them their lives and all that influences them.
When I think back to my first group of students, I wonder about their stories. Families worked hard and the community struggled with detrimental issues such as drug addiction and poverty. I remember student who would show up to school in the same clothes day after day. At parent teacher conferences, I averaged four or five parents out of eighty or so students. But I didn't know their stories. I didn't understand their context. I could never teach and create a positive, relevant, and appropriate learning environment without striving to understand my students and their lives.
Dalai Lama. (1993). The Dalai Lama: A policy of kindness. S. Piburn, (Ed.). Ithica, NY: Snow Lion.
Freire, P. (1994). Education for critical consciousness. New York, NY: Continuum.
Volk, T. (1995). Metapatterns: Across space, time, and mind. New York, NY: Columbia.