Why We Need to Stop Thinking About Students in Terms of Strengths and Weaknesses

Dec 6, 2018 12:00:00 AM


My son is a freshman in high school and this felt like my first report card pick up all over again. While I have access to all his grades and consistent progress electronically, I was nervous to go and hear about how he is performing at the parent-teacher conference. I knew that what his teachers would have to say about his learning as well as their perception of his character would be a big deal—not only for my sense of parental effectiveness but it could also have a long-term impact on his development. As a parent and former school leader, I know that there are a few things that can help make this journey through high school and beyond one that he is proud of and can learn from: asset-based language, a sense of belonging and identity affirmation. Essentially, how we talk to and about our students, how we ensure that they find their place in the school environment and how who they are is acknowledged and celebrated during school.

Asset-Based Language

Asset-based language focuses on student strengths and builds on current opportunities. I am a parent who is well aware of my son’s “school self.” This is not only because we spend a lot of time together, but also because I have been given eight years of honest feedback about him since elementary school. So when I came to his school, I was prepared to hear about him being talkative, being distracted easily, having a lot of energy and being super unorganized. And I heard all of that. But he had a few teachers who decided that they would talk about those things from an asset-based lens. One teacher said, “Because he loves to talk, I allow him to introduce the lesson and read aloud. He even uses a character voice to make it more interesting.” [pullquote]This teacher decided to take his talkative behavior and leverage it as a strength and an asset for the class.[/pullquote] When I reflect on how educators think about our students, I realize that we do them and ourselves a disservice when we focus solely on their areas of growth. When we don't spend time assessing their strengths and talents, we miss opportunities to connect with them and lift them up. Because they all have gifts, they are all gifted. We just need to identify their gifts and elevate them in the classroom so they all feel like they belong.

Promote Belonging and Identity Affirmation

My son is the definition of not fitting in a box. He is super comfortable in his own skin and expresses his sense of self in how he communicates, how he dresses and how he approaches learning. His approach is generally not in alignment with traditional school norms and what teachers generally define as an ideal student. Like my son, many Black boys are continuously told that who they are is not socially acceptable and that no one understands them or their journey through puberty. They are told that they are getting older and that they must follow every instruction to the letter so that the world won’t criminalize them. They are told that even though they are 14, they are 5’9” and threatening, so the should stand back from people as not to appear aggressive. [pullquote]They are told that if they ask questions or need better understanding about why, that they are argumentative and disrespectful.[/pullquote] Identity affirmation is not just about race, gender and sexual orientation, it’s about who they are as a person. Schools should create spaces and experiences for students not only tell their stories and celebrate their current self, but offer opportunities for them to explore who their future self might be. This can be done through personal stories, cultural explorations and journaling. Teachers should constantly interrogate what they put in front of students and ask, “Is this worth knowing?” Classrooms should have strong structures for discussion, questioning and feedback. Student voices should be are part of the fabric of a classroom. In this space, boys like my son feel welcomed and feelings of self doubt are minimized.

Parents Are Sending You Their Best Work, So Respect That

“I moved him and another problem child to different seats” is what one of his teachers told me during the conference. If this is what she would say to my face about him, I can only imagine how he may be spoken about and to in my absence. Imagine if someone says 10 things to you and nine of them are corrections or negative feedback. How would you categorize your relationship? How might you feel about the learning environment and your place in it? What schools need to better understand is, parents and families are sending you their best work. While you may see a misbehaved student, what you are actually looking at is the promise of a family. You are looking at the breaker of a wealth gap, or the breaker of a generational curse. You are looking at the hopes and dreams of their lineage and it is your privilege to be part of their story. Schools should seek to honor who students are and who they will become. This is done with love, trust, empathy and honest engagement. I am creating theses spaces at the schools I lead, and I am committed to helping my son’s school do the same.

LeeAndra Khan

LeeAndra Khan is CEO of Civitas Education Partners. Previously she served as a middle school principal in Oak Park, Illinois, and formerly spent 10 years in three Chicago high schools as a principal, assistant principal and math teacher. Before beginning her journey into education, she spent 10 years as a civil engineer designing roads, highways, gas stations and bridge inspections. LeeAndra is the mom of one son and the daughter of a retired Chicago police officer. Watch her TEDx Talk on teacher voice and leadership beyond the classroom, where she tells a story about how a school culture transformed through teacher influence. In August 2017, she came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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