This blog post originally appeared on Teacher2Teacher.
When I first started teaching, I was working in a school that served mostly students of color. Even as a teacher of color, I didn’t share a lot of the same experiences my students had. Unlike many of my students, I grew up with two parents who had resources and time, which meant I had a lot of supports with my academics. I had an aunt who would send me books every summer, from birth to high school, and for me, it was such a joy. So when I met students who struggled with reading and grammar, I was surprised. I couldn’t see right away how their different experiences could lead to some unfinished learning.
I’d be looking at my students, asking, “Why don’t you have a pencil? Why don’t you love books? What do you need?” I had no clue where to start. I didn’t realize I had biases. But I can now see the ways I was projecting my values and background onto my students. I was assuming all kids had the same supports I had. I made a lot of assumptions about what my students should be able to do, what resources they should have and the ways they should think.
Thankfully, I had folks in my circle who were more experienced teachers and who would challenge me. I needed people to help me recognize and unpack the beliefs I was bringing into the classroom. Changing my mindset involved a lot of self-exploration. I had my biases, and I also had those first-year insecurities about my own teaching – both of which got in the way of supporting my students.
A lot of times, we focus on race when we talk about equity, but there are a lot of other factors. I worked with students who qualified for special ed services, and had to come into my understanding that I wasn’t holding them to high enough expectations. There was this idea that, “Because this kid has X disability, they can’t access this learning.” I needed to unpack that, too.
The problem wasn’t that my students couldn’t rise to the expectations set before them. It was that I wasn’t able to see them for who they were – and I wasn’t yet giving them the supports they needed to reach that high bar. Maybe my students needed more support with reading, but I wasn’t literate when it came to equity. I wanted to be an amazing teacher on Day One, but I realized I had some unfinished learning, too.
By the time my second year came around, I knew I couldn’t start Day One as my best self if I didn’t do some internal work first. I told myself: “You know what, before I meet my kids, I need to self-assess.” I decided to sit down and make a chart: How did I learn? What supports did I have? How might this compare to the access and supports my students have?
If I could go back in time and say one thing to my first-year-teacher self, it would be, “Examine your biases about what you believe your students can do. Sit with the fact that they may not learn how you learned as a kid. What do you believe about your students?”
About Jonathan Bolding
Jonathan Bolding is a former middle school and compliance facilitator who taught students with disabilities and those identified as gifted and talented for seven years within the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools System (MNPS). As director, program administration, Jonathan guides cross-functional and strategic work across teams. Prior, Jonathan coordinated federal programs and revised policies, practices, and procedures for the Tennessee Department of Education. He was in the the first cohort of educator fellows with the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (TN-SCORE). Jonathan was selected by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) to receive the 2015-16 Javits-Frasier Scholar Award.