Dear future educator:
I want to begin this letter by telling you the story of Victor, a boy I met few years ago as part of a mentorship program. I was an undergraduate student at the time wanting to make a difference in the life of a student. This is perhaps a similar purpose you have now as you have chosen to become a teacher. The program had as a mission to provide at-risk youth with a role model and a stable figure in their lives. My job was to take Victor out once a week and engage in recreational activities. Jennifer, another undergraduate, and I were assigned two siblings. Roberto who was thirteen years old and Victor who was twelve.
On our first day as mentors Jennifer and I decided to go together to their home and introduce ourselves to the family. When we got there, neither Victor nor Roberto were home. We introduced ourselves to their mother and she apologetically said she did not know where they were. She told us that the program coordinator had confirmed our visit but that they probably forgot. Jennifer and I waited outside the home (the program coordinators advised all mentors not to go into the children’s homes for safety reasons, some family problems were greater than others). One hour and a half had passed and there were no signs that the boys would come home and we decided to leave (the coordinators had warned as that this might happen and that we could leave, it wasn’t unusual for that to happen).
During the next two weeks I encountered a similar situation, except that this time Victor showed up an hour late. If you are wondering whether it was our meeting time that was a problem it was not, we changed the time and he was still not on time. Four weeks into the program, I was feeling defeated. Victor was always late and I was starting to believe he did not care. But most importantly I was blaming him for this failure, an unsuccessful mentorship experience for both of us. I blamed him because I was doing everything right. I was there always on time. We talked about activities he wanted to do and that was what we did. I had met Luz, his mother, when I introduced myself and talked with her for a brief moment during the first visit. All I was thinking was “this boy doesn’t care.”
It was the fifth week, and this time I was upset, and I thought to myself “ah no, this kid will not leave me waiting again!” So when I got to Victor’s house, I knocked at the door, A little nine-year-old girl opened the door, and I asked for Victor. It was Fernanda, Victor’s younger sister. This time, instead of waiting in my rented car, I started a conversation with Fernanda. A couple of minutes later his mother who heard us talking came over and invited into the home. This time, Luz, Fernanda and I were talking and getting to know each other. About forty minutes later Victor arrived. The next week, I did the same. I went inside the home but only waited for about twenty minutes. On week seven and eight I did not have to wait at all. Luz and Fernanda greeted me from the door and saying “let me know if he behaves well” while Victor rushed to my car. But week ninth is a week that even though eight years have passed I still remember.
As I drove toward his house, I saw him sitting on the sidewalk very calm waiting. He looked towards me, stood up with a huge smile. He looked excited to see me. He quickly got inside the car. Very clean looking wearing jeans and a polo shirt, and he even put on some cologne. The next weeks were similar. Sometimes we even invited Fernanda to come with us. Victor told me about some of the issues at home and issues with his friends. He asked my opinion on different issues and we talked about them. I began to see Victor as a kid dealing with many personal issues, issues I would never fully understand. I saw Victor as a product of different factors. His father had less than a high school education and was in jail. His mother had only a high school degree and was a Spanish speaker. His oldest brother (not Roberto) was in the hospital with a serious medical condition. His older brother, Roberto, had also some behavioral problems and was just like Victor a part of a non-profit organization that dealt with youth who had behavioral problems. I understood his behavior. I understood that perhaps at the beginning I was just one more person trying to “help.” I was another representative of an institution with good intentions but without a real interest in him and I was also someone that saw him having a problem that needed to get fixed. I was part of a system that saw him as having a deficit.
What made the change possible? It was not my good intentions, for I had good intentions, “wanting to make a difference in someone’s life,” at the beginning of the program. And after a few weeks I was feeling defeated blaming him for his lack of interest. It was not time, for time kept passing without any changes in his commitment. What brought about change was a change in my attitude, in the way I saw the situation. I challenged myself. I went beyond what the program required of me to do. At the beginning it was a little more work, but it was work that made my mentorship experience much more rewarding. By the end of the program it was not only Victor looking forward to our time together. I was also looking forward to a new fun activity and conversations with him. I believe it was the true change in me that made it all happen. I was able to reflect my true beliefs about Victor and he responded to that.
As current students and future teachers take time to learn about your understanding of children/youth at risk. What does that mean to you? How does this definition influence your perceptions, your actions? Challenge yourself in taking courses that will help you see your future students as part of a greater society. Make sure your courses prepare you to see the “cultural politics,” to see society as made of many institutions, including schools, that produce judgments, choices and possibilities for people, for students (Giroux, 2008). Hopefully understanding how different systems influence your students’ behaviors will help you not see the students as having a deficit, as not valuing education or not having the skills to succeed. But hopefully they will help you recognize the cultural wealth (Yosso, 2005) of your students, such as having dreams and hopes despite the barriers they encounter and speaking more than one language.
There can be many types of teacher education programs. And although as students you feel you do not have much control over what courses are being required from your program, you have a voice in demanding courses that will challenge your views. Courses that will help you see the students as a product of society rather than direct players in it. If such courses are not offered in your program, choose elective courses in a different department. Be an advocate of your education. Participate in mentorship programs, just like I did, or volunteer at community centers so that you can better understand students. If at some point during this experience you feel uncomfortable, or most importantly you feel that you are blaming the student for his/her outcomes, then you might be missing something. Instead of withdrawing get closer to your student(s). Ask questions that will help you get to know them at a personal level. Go beyond surface level questions that prevent you from asking real and important questions, questions with substance.
I hope that this letter helped you see how sometimes having good intentions is not enough. I hope you were able to see how, even though you think you have the knowledge and you are doing all the right things, there is always one more aspect that you have not considered. I hope you were able to see how different systems influence the students’ lives. Most importantly, I hope you were able to see how you are also part of this system and that your perceptions and understanding of it will make the difference in how you will view your students and how your students will respond to you.