I am an avid watcher of documentaries, both films and series. I love watching the proverbial curtain being pulled back and seeing things for what they are; or at least what the editing teams allow. So, when I saw the advertisement for a docuseries called America to Me, I was intrigued.
The show is based at Oak Park River Forest High School right outside of Chicago. The premise of the show was to shine a light on the long-running educational and racial diversity of the school. As the show journeyed through the lives of various students, the light meant to illuminate the school’s diversity widened to show multiplicity of the student and faculty experience at the school. As I intently watched every week, it struck me that the school on the television looked and felt oddly familiar.
As I subbed for an absent principal one day, I spent time matching names on referrals to faces and faces to personalities. It was during this time that my affinity for and familiarity with the school on television started to make sense. Oak Park River Forest is MY school. The ethnic diversity and countless accompanying dialects of numerous languages, varying socioeconomic standings, and a variety of backgrounds and home situations of both faculty and students were all as present in my everyday occupation as it was at that school outside of Chicago.
An unsettling similarity between Oak River Forest and my school is that these differentiating factors have played a significant role in creating an academics, behavioral, and most importantly, relationship gap. Acknowledgement of the gap, however, is just the beginning of the work necessary to fill the cracks that continue to widen the fissure. The data shows us the “what.” The more difficult, and undoubtedly more uncomfortable question, is “why.”
This question is not to be reduced to a rhetorical nature. As educators, we must dig for answers. In an effort to define common causes for the relationship gap that seems to plague education and create increased opportunities for the imbalances in numerical data that often drive these conversations, I continued to be steered back to the word “gap.”
An “aha” moment occurred. The relational gap in education is caused by Generalities And Preconceptions. Acting on ideas based on personal or vicarious experiences, not necessarily the needs of the present individuals. Now that we have acknowledged this, we must take steps to close and seal the gap by addressing our G.A.P.
Step 1: Specify Our Generalizations
When we generalize, we unfairly bundle a group of individuals together based on inferences derived from specific incidents. Essentially, we unfairly categorize, and subsequently treat, people based on projections from past personal experiences with a person, place, or event, positive or negative, that shares a shred of commonality with a current confrontation in a subconscious effort to increase our own comfort level. Every human, including students, is a collection of experiences that shapes their thoughts and actions. It is vital to the progression of our cultural responsibility in education to explore those experiences, and how they have formed our patterns, habits, and assumptions, even if it takes feedback to do so. Knowledge is gained in that discomfort. From that knowledge, we must honestly decide if we are handling each person and situation as its own, or are we allowing our personal encounters to be the sole driving force of our actions. Truthful, specific self-assessment of why we react in the ways we do is the only way to successfully navigate beyond the generalizations we may make.
Step 2: Conceptualize Beyond Preconceived Notions
A synonym for notion is conviction. An idea that is preconceived is one formed before having sufficient evidence to prove its truth or even usefulness. Therefore, a preconceived notion is a judgement formed without proof of validity or that such a conviction is even worth having. Imagine how toxic an environment would be if the leader operates from a place of baseless opinions. How can anyone effectively combat a “that’s just how I feel” argument that is devoid of a point to counter? How can the fragile student mind wrap itself around the idea that his or her teacher has judged them prior to any interaction?
The truth of the matter is that preconceived notions exist. It would be counterproductive to pretend that they don’t. It is difficult to eliminate them completely, so the goal is to function with an open mind. Our thoughts are ours. Regardless of the reason, it is impossible to ignore an idea planted in your brain. However, it is imperative that we understand that it Is not fair, or constructive, to allow our thoughts to hinder our minds from growing. Eventually, if we stretch ourselves beyond our superficial notions, our thoughts will typically change and create a fundamental base for true beliefs to stand on. Evidence is more influential than the lack thereof.
Step 3: Squeeze the GAP
Wrap your arms around your GAP and squeeze. Embrace the cracks in your judgement. Feel them. Be aware of their existence. Then, push yourself to operate despite them. We cannot control where we come from, what family we were born into, or how our family thinks based on their experience. What we can control, however, is our empathy for what we don’t understand. Empathy does not equate to lowered standards or excuses for underperforming. Quite the opposite is actually true. We, as educators, must embrace our shortcomings, be forever learners beyond the books, and be willing to adjust what success looks like based on the students we presently have to ensure perpetual growth. That is the only way to close those gaps.
The adage goes, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Our job as educators requires us to expand that idea a bit further to understanding that students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care to know about them. Closing that gap by making mutually beneficial cultures creates an environment conducive to learning, and the data increase domino will fall into place.
Every encounter you have with a student creates an experience for them. That experience plays a role in shaping their assumptions, notions, and generalities moving forward; much like your experiences shaped you.