One of the wonderful things about educators is that, generally speaking, they do care about their students – including those who teach Black and Brown students in the city. However, what “care” actually means and how it is applied is a different discussion.
As an educator, I’ve seen teachers and administrators give their all for students. They’ve created awesome learning experiences, provided access to people and places to spark and to empower, and they’ve also shared a word to motivate and encourage. They do that because many, I believe, want the best for students. But, like “care,” “best” is a subjective term and framing, at best. At worst, “best” points to everything other than what is designated that label as less than.
Here’s what I mean…
I overheard a colleague speaking with a student about that student’s failure to take their work seriously. The student hadn’t turned in a few assignments for this particular teacher and the teacher sought to give them some tough love and encouragement in a one-on-one conversation. The teacher said to the students, “I want better for you, but you have to want it too.”
A period or so later, that teacher shared what they said to myself and another colleague, to which that colleague shared the following insight, “there’s judgment in saying that you want better. It implies that what they have isn’t good enough.”
I know that teacher didn’t mean to put down the student’s current situation or life circumstances; that teacher simply wanted for the student to engage in their work, which could very well spark something in that student that could lead to a drive, passios and engagement. However, my colleague was right. When we (educators) use clichés to drive home our point to students, we potentially run the risk of alienating or polarizing them; even if that is not our intention.
I can admit that I am guilty of saying that cliché. But when hearing myself say it, I realized that those words might actually say is that what I want for you is better than anything you already have, what you can produce or what you can manifest with what you already have. I am certain that’s not what my teacher colleague meant or any other educator who says “I want better for you.” But sometimes the intention behind our words or actions can’t excuse the way our words or actions land with an individual.
Also, proximity plays a part in how that phrase lands. It means something different when coming from a parent or guardian who’s in the trenches with a kid versus an educator who enters and departs lives each day.
So, in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I personally wanted to get the language right.
I changed my approach. Instead of using that phrase, I began saying to my students that I desired they put themselves in position to have the most options possible to make the most informed decision about the trajectory of their lives. Because teaching and learning is really about facilitating critical thinking within students rather than assuming a course of their lives and expecting them to do what we think is best.
Students have to think for themselves and make their own decisions, but when we use phrasing that denotes that what they have (and by proxy who they are) isn’t good enough, we not only create a false dichotomy, but we also deny the best of who our students are and the very communities and cultures that cultivated their character and their genius.
What I want for my students is that they not limit their potential and therefore their access to options as a result of their hard work – and the favor that accompanies their commitment to their work. I think all educators share the same sentiment. But we have to be mindful in our phrasing when speaking to young people. As a parent, I am always mindful of how my children are internalizing what I am saying to them. So, I have to make sure that I communicate the message as best as possible and that means considering who they are and everything that makes up their world.
I am not advocating that educators engage in mental gymnastics or politically correctness to protect the feelings of their students per se. I am arguing that educators, in general, check their privilege and power when conversing with students, particularly if your cultural proximity to students is far. You may mean well when you say certain phrases, but they may not have the intended affect because you failed to consider how your motivational talk may land.
If you truly want better for your students, then do better. Give them what it is that they need, not simply what it is that you think they need.