April 10, 2009

They don't know that they don't know?

I didn’t know that I didn’t know, and neither do my students (most of them.) Events in my life over the last few weeks have had a whopping impact on my perspective on teaching, life, and especially on my efforts with my students. I had this topic written down for quite a while, but it has taken me some time to realize how and what to write about the fact that I didn’t know that I didn’t really know about poverty. And not just poverty, but about desire, about homelessness, about ambition and dedication and commitment. I thought I knew.

I went to Mexico over spring break. Almost as a clique of what to do during my two weeks off, I went with a group of students to build a house for a homeless family. I know that there is poverty in Mexico; I know that there is poverty in my school. I’ve seen pictures of shanty towns. My father drove me down to 4th street in Los Angeles when I was a young person. But this was the first time I have worked along side someone desperately trying to improve the quality of his life, and life for his family.

Or is it? Isn’t that what I do as a teacher everyday: work along side someone desperately trying to improve the quality of his or her life? I think it’s the “desperate” part that is missing from my students. Most of them do not seem very desperate to learn. Perhaps it is the population that I teach. Perhaps it is the times we live in. Or perhaps they do not feel the urgency to improve because many do not understand the opportunities of an American education and have not experienced a real need. They don’t know that they don’t know.

I was struck by the children of Mexico who have nothing to occupy their play time; nothing but each other’s company. I wondered if they have the same ambition for their lives as I have. Then I watched Slumdog Millionaire. No wonder it won best picture; what an amazing story, and an amazing film. The brothers who lived in a trash pile clearly had ambitions for a better life, and were willing to do whatever was necessary to survive. Jamal was desperate to endure, even if he couldn’t read the Three Musketeers and never learned the name of the third.

As educators, I feel that it is critically important that we keep our eyes open. Just because we can’t see what goes on beyond the closed doors of our classrooms does not mean that it is acceptable for us to choose ignorance. We need to recognize in ourselves that we don’t know what it is like to walk in the shoes of ALL of our students. We don’t. But we need to make the point with ALL of our students that we all need to be cognizant of the whole world we live in, and not just our small corner.


  1. I took a class on poverty a few years back, and the first thing that struck me about those in poverty is that they do not have the middle class values instilled in them that I have and expect them to have. I want them to come to class everyday because "I" believe that it is what everyone should do. In their worlds, that is what another class of people do, not them. Hard to wrap my mind around, let alone write about. You did a great job of articulating it.


  2. Now that I have lost my job as a classroom teacher, and have no prospects, I may now be joining many of my students in the poverty class.

    My eyes. Yes, they're open.

  3. There is third world poverty in the US too, we should never forget that. Good blog - thanks!

  4. What a wonderful way to spend your spring break!

    My first years teaching were at a "D" school, where many students were up late at night caring for their younger siblings while their single parents worked. It was a "culture shock" for me, similar to what you described. Though impossible to "walk in the shoes of ALL students," this teaching experience verified for me the importance of importance of trying to understand where my students are coming from.

  5. The greatest benefit for me when I went to Mexico was that it helped me to understand the situation that many of my students come from. At first I said, "This is so wrong," and I wanted to fix it. Then I said, "I love this culture and the simplicity of life here and I understand why the poor are called blessed." Then I reached a point where I could see both the beauty and the pain. I realized, in the process, that it redefined the way I saw God.

    One of my favorite people in the Bible is Job. It's interesting that, when he is told that he's suffering as a result of sin, his defense is that he knows God and then he starts talking about how he knows the poor - not just giving money to them or knowing of them, but fighting for social justice.

    I know this is a long comment and I apologize for it. But one thing I really believe is that many people like me (who are more conservative theologically) miss God's heart for the poor. What they miss is that, in choosing to love the poor, we see God differently.

  6. great post -- we do get wrapped up in our own small corners, and so do our students, which is why the more we as parents/educators can "keep our eyes open" the better we can open the eyes of our children.

  7. Perspective is hugely important in education, and is often overlooked. Thanks for a great post.

  8. Perhaps teachers ought to do more to find out what goes on the lives of their students.

    I have been asked on a number of occasions by my fellow teachers to sit in on classes to make recommendations as to how they might better control their classes.

    When I do this I usually find that their kids are every bit as well managed as those in my classroom. It turns out that I have very few problems with behavior because I do not expect kids to do anything except act their age, and I know them. I know what they do after school, how things are at home, and I remember that it is a rare kid that is a bigger pain in the butt than I was at their age.

    "Professionalism" that is defined as keeping separation from your kids, and not relating to them as individuals is crazy.

    Get out there and spend time with them. Allow them to act their age, and show them that you love them. I can teach a kid that knows I love him way more than one who thinks I am "Professional:)"