When dealing with students who come from complex situations at home and contend with racial discrimination looming behind every door, respect is crucial. These students, like me, often have trouble dealing with figures of authority due to the absence of a parent. For better or worse, we see law enforcement as either a form of punishment or mode of constant surveillance. Our impressionable minds come to believe that
all authority is bad authority because of tough home lives, so it is very important for our teachers to handle the idea of respect and authority carefully. It’s not easy, but it is what has made all the difference for me.
Throughout my educational journey, I was placed in many different schools and districts. I was the “new kid” a lot more times than I would have liked. Only in recent years have I realized this exposed me to all kinds of methods of teaching, allowing for a critical look into the way myself and fellow classmates were instructed. Thinking back to my first years of high school, I have a pretty hard time finding a teacher who wasn’t just throwing the book at the class and saying, “Learn!” A 20-pound textbook cannot teach students.
The lesson must feel genuine. The teacher must seem confident in the material as it is presented to students. It means much more to a student and makes use of the relationship that has been forged when teachers try to truly connect with students rather than relying on a book. It’s easy to toss a book in your bag after class and forget about it, but it’s a lot harder to toss out a mentally stimulating classroom experience. Those stay with you.
But how do you create this classroom experience? Each student has their own point of interest and figuring it out is where the class becomes a challenge for the teacher. A great teacher makes it their goal to pique each student's interest. A former history teacher and amazing advisor of mine, Griffin Quirk, did this very well—not only in the classroom but also in the halls, cafeteria and athletic fields at Paul Cuffee Upper School. He was willing to provide friendship and honesty to all students, regardless of their school record or behavioral deficiencies, approaching all situations sensitively and cautiously. He was the worst guy to ask a question since he constantly responded with another question. His favorite was, “But why?” and its variations like “Why does it matter?” and “Why is it important?” What comes off to students in the beginning as annoying becomes the most engaging thing a teacher who wants to be great can do: telling a class it is important not only to learn the material but to ask ourselves why it is we are learning and what things really mean in the world. It is in this way that teachers can equip their students with the ability to learn on their own in spaces where they wouldn't learn otherwise.
It’s important to mention that there is no perfect teacher and there is no perfect student. But the relationship between a student and a teacher can be made great. Establishing respect may be the hardest part of being even a fairly good teacher because of the authoritative nature of the position. Mutual respect is so important because in order for a student, at least a student like me, to properly listen they must respect the teacher on a level where their words hold value or meaning to them beyond academics. When a student feels a true connection to a teacher, the potential on both sides is limitless. And it is what saved me.
Dashaun Robinson, 21, is a native of Rhode Island and is a sophomore at Rhode Island College, a public college in Providence.