“One of the signs of the times that frightens me is this: the insistence, in the name of democracy, freedom, and efficacy, on asphyxiating freedom itself and, by extension, creativity and a taste for the adventure of the spirit. The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas and models in relation to which we are evaluated” (Freire, 2001, p. 101-2).
“…though I know that things can get worse, I also know that I am able to intervene to improve them” (Freire, 2001, p. 53).
Students are people. They are not sponges. Not robots. Not puppets. Students are not an audience, waiting to be entertained. They are people. Just like me.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that students are actually people.
For some reason, it’s easy for me to recognize all of the many things that I am within one whole person. All of my strengths, histories, faults, emotions, contradictions, roles, responsibilities, and so on. I am all of these things at once. Sometimes the volume is turned up on some of who I am, turned down on others. But, they are all there. Every day. All the time. Why is it so hard for me to remember that students are people, that they are a lot of things too? And why am I so much more easily forgiving of myself than I may be with students?
I suppose that my struggle is not all that different from what I experience when I go back to my hometown and spend any time with people that I knew. I instantly become that one thing that they remember. I am no longer what I have become. I am the unpredictable one. I am the sensitive one. I am one of the Downs boys. I am Juice, J-Dogg, Speedy Gonzalez, and other nicknames that I imagine meant something at some point, but that I can no longer recall. I am no longer a husband. I am no longer a teacher. I am no longer a father. I am, to borrow from Eminem, whatever they say I am. I am no longer a person.
Students are people. They are people in the process of becoming something. This process can meet with a range of results, from miserable and tragic failure to incredible and miraculous success. Every day, just like me, students are many things all at once, with some of who they are more pronounced or subdued, given different conditions and contexts.
Students are unpredictable in that way. They typically have only a vague notion of who they are, why they are here, where they are headed, and what they are becoming and for what purpose; but they continue to move toward a future in which they will become more responsible and accountable. Their role, as students, is to uncover who they are and to figure out who they hope to become. Our role, as their teachers, is to help them to develop toward greater measures responsibility and to find the ability to make good decisions for themselves. As Freire (2001) says, “Autonomy is a process of becoming oneself, a process of maturing, of coming to be” (p. 98). Our principal task and responsibility must be to know our students as people and to engage with them in the process of becoming.
Knowing students as people requires a respect for their personhood as well as our own. “Respect for the autonomy and dignity of every person is an ethical imperative and not a favor that we may or may not concede to each other” (Freire, 2001, p. 59). Such a degree of respect is essential to knowing what our students, and we ourselves, bring to school. We have to take stock of the “diverse learners” (including ourselves) and diverse contexts with which we are engaged.
I have heard and participated in discussions about “diverse learners” somewhat often over the last ten years. What people mean when they say “diverse learners” ranges from singular views (only race or learning styles or abilities or etc.) to fairly complex views.
Some people present a “colorblind” view of diversity. As Julie Landsman says in her book A White Teacher Talks about Race (2009), such thinking is ignorant. “We pretend that racial differences do not exist; we are all alike under the skin, aren’t we? Thus, we do not acknowledge the experiences of people of color, precisely because of their skin—black, brown, yellow, or white, dark or light” (p. xi).
Also on the spectrum of ideas about “diverse learners,” (Landsman finds that she, herself, sometimes slips into this category) I have heard plenty of stereotyping that ignores the complexities of students as people. I have heard teachers use all sorts of handy generalizations about groups of people, and then apply them improperly to particular students. In my limited experience, these stereotypes have tended to be based on gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, ability, and learning styles. If I could recall every instance, I am certain that there has been no demographic left untouched by such stereotyping. This sort of thinking is not only ignorant, but cops out of our responsibility to know our students as people. Freire (2001) goes even further: “All discrimination is immoral, and to struggle against it is a duty whatever the conditionings that have to be confronted” (p. 60).
Still others, but far too few, see students as people. They understand that students are complex and that the myriad cultural contexts that intersect and overlap in schools can create a confusing (as opposed to a learning) environment. And, I think that this has got to be our starting point as teachers—get to know, not only our students as people, but the confluences of contexts and complexities that occur at our schools. From there, we can begin to move our students and ourselves toward something greater. Jennifer Obidah (2000) tells us that “…the teacher’s work is pivotal to the enterprise of multicultural education. Indeed the teaching of an actual subject mainly serves as a backdrop to educating students on how to be citizens who respect and appreciate all members of society” (p. 1037). From a different tack, Freire (2001) says, “…to teach is not to transfer knowledge, but to create the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge” (p. 30).
Continuing along this line of thinking, good teaching cannot be good teaching regardless of the student population. Good teaching has to be good teaching with the deepest regard for the student population. Further, what we bring to students’ learning must be equally deeply regarded. As Freire says, “It serves no purpose, except to irritate and demoralize the student, for me to talk of democracy and freedom and at the same time act with the arrogance of a know-all” (2001, p. 61). More generally stated, “Pedagogical and teaching practices should cohere with, not contradict, the goals of multiculturalism” (Obidah, 2000, p. 1039). We, as teachers, have a responsibility to understand our own partialities and subjectivity if we can hope to practice any degree of good teaching.
So, how do we know whether or when students have learned? How do we know when we’re good teachers? I’m not sure that we can ever really know whether any student has taken something of value with them, something that has been valuable to their process of becoming. Further, thinking that we can reach a benchmark and declare that we are good teachers, could easily lead to complacency. As with any principle worth pursuing, goodness may never be achieved, but only approached asymptotically into our future. And as we send our students off into that future, only time will tell whether our part in their stories has been good, though we may never know the results. Until then, we have to keep on striving.
“I like to be human because in my unfinishedness I know that I am conditioned. Yet conscious of such conditioning, I know that I can go beyond it, which is the essential difference between conditioned and determined existence” (Freire, 2001, p. 54).
“The point of democracy is not to finish it, that would be a tragedy. The point is to participate, to be engaged, and perhaps too, that is so with diversity” (Wu, 2007, p. 8).
- Friere, P. (2001). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
- Landsman, J. (2009). A white teacher talks about race (Classroom edition). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
- Obidah, J. E. (2000). Mediating boundaries of race, class, and professorial authority as a critical multiculturalist. Teachers College Record, 102(6), 1035-1060.
- Wu, F. (2007, November 29). Transcript of the opening ceremonies keynote address at the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference. Alexandria, VA: EEI Production.
 “Teachers who do not take their own education seriously, who do not study, who make little effort to keep abreast of events have no moral authority to coordinate the activities of the classroom” (Freire, 2001, p. 85).