Colonization in education is when we enter the spaces and communities of students and insist that they acclimate to the spaces and communities we either come from or were taught to center in the university. A colonized education centers the cultural norms, experiences, and ethnic background of school leadership as the unspoken norm and the embodiment of a so-called universal standard of education and knowledge. To interrupt it is to interrupt ourselves in a manner which creates cognitive pain… but it is the only way that the soil will be ready for equity in our schools… in your school… right now.
When a child resists learning, reflect on where you, as school or home educator, are resisting the opportunity to teach. I don’t mean that you are literally mirroring the student with arms crossed and a mile-long pout to match. What I am attempting to do is simply challenge the belief that any human being, made in the image of the Creator, would “choose” not to learn. Even when we don’t condone what students are choosing to absorb, they are still learning with intentional deliberation and acute effort either it be song lyrics, the plot of their favorite cartoon, memorizing the social norms of being a teenager, or facts about their favorite sport or media icon. After over a decade of teaching, I have never in my life met a child or adolescent who did not learn, did not want to learn, or was unable to learn.
Allow me to be transparent. What I am about to say, I did not just know on my own. I learned by falling, struggling, and making the necessary changes within myself for it turned out, in my case, it was not the children that were lacking but instead it was me. During my first month of teaching, I had an energetic and bright class of elementary and middle school students who… well… tried my patience and faith simultaneously. However, what I found in the first few days of my teaching experience was that I was failing to see how the students preferred to be taught and how they were already socialized by the richness of their culture, experiences, families, and communities to learn best. I remember trying to put myself in their shoes, recalling who I was, what I felt, and what I wanted when I was their age. I shared a similar race, class, and certain life experiences with the large group of elementary and middle school students that I had been gifted to teach. With all sincerity, I desperately wanted to be a phenomenal teacher and, to be honest, though I was too prideful to admit it at the time, I wanted them to like me and maybe, just maybe, to be their favorite teacher! I know! Overzealous, huh? Maybe some of you can relate to the eagerness of beginning a teaching career in your twenties.
My idea was to spend the first part of that academic year really reflecting, reading, and reflecting some more about what my students wanted. I tried to remember my own youth in order to honor theirs by giving them the benefit of the doubt when they seemed a bit more energetic or distracted than I would have liked.
I soon figured that they wanted to have fun, to laugh, and to play while they learned. So that’s exactly what we did! Mind you, I was the Spanish teacher for the school and had never written kid songs in Spanish or English for that matter. I went for it! I figured that if I looked like a fool in front of these elementary and middle schoolers, at least we’d have some laughs while doing it. My desire was to center my students’ styles of communication, of playing, of being rather than keeping these essential teaching and learning tools as peripheral. Among other experiments, most of which did not employ the use of music composition, this particular one literally saved my first months of teaching!
The students absolutely loved it! Even my middle schoolers fell in love with Spanish and with my class. In fact, when they were having a difficult day in neighboring classrooms, they would often meander into my room to unload and seek counsel as I had Spanish songs for kids playing or was composing my next silly Spanish body parts tune.
I don’t want to assume that it was simply the songs or that every home or school educator should bust out in song to teach math… or maybe they should 😉 I strongly believe that it was my willingness to learn, to unlearn and relearn, how to teach from the lived knowledge and experiences of my students that made all the difference. After leaving the Spanish classroom to teach elementary education, I tried this approach with core content and found that it served my students well in math, language arts, history, and every subject that we explored together.
This approach is in stark contrast with the rules of engagement we call teaching today. Yes, I know that we say that the students inform our teaching. In fact, we wholeheartedly convince ourselves and student families of this. But if this is true, then why do so many of us experience resistance from said students? Why do we witness colleagues sending the same students out of the classroom week after week while future teachers will likely do the same?
We assume that because we have gone to school to teach, we are somehow entitled to receive the ear, and even the heart, of the students who enter our space. We assume that our best intentions are more important than the impact we are making on students who seem to be waging a silent war with us in the classroom. We forget that it is our impact that is indeed measurable – not our intentions. Even if you are a homeschool educator, as I currently am, I do not believe that you will find it easy or enjoyable to teach the way you prefer, or even the way you yourself learn best, while dismissing the ways in which your child wants to be taught.
During my first classroom teaching experience in 2005 and thereafter, I reflected on the ways that I was resisting the opportunity to teach in a manner which centered the students’ experiences and cultures rather than in a manner that embodied the universities that taught me. Mind you, these universities were, you guessed it, operated by white culture, history, and social norms. And it nearly drove me crazy! So imagine how ridiculous I would be to insist that the children of color that were before me should accept my way of teaching and being when I was demonstrating to them that I did not accept theirs.
Teaching is reciprocal, and although as adults we often miss this reality, children do not. They desire to have an exchange and, in fact, the students most resilient in character and thought would rather be sent out of the classroom than to let us treat them like receptacles meant to stuff information.
So the next time you think you have found a student that is resisting education, consider how you might… just might be inadvertently and unconsciously resisting an invitation to be transformed by that student through the reciprocal exchange of teaching and learning which is the truest definition of education.