Friday, August 21, 2015

A Teacher's Reflections on Diversity

I’m not sure how I got so lucky, but I have the best job in the world. No, I’m not talking about the summers, holidays, and breaks, although I do love those. (OK, I love those a lot!) But what is possibly most unusual about my job is the true cross-section of the community that I get the chance to know at a personal level.

Very few jobs and very few organizations involve a true cross-section. Most attract a particular socio-economic stratum of society, and most are fairly stagnant, working with the same group of people often for several years. We come to think of these little circles (our work, our church, our neighborhood) as representative of the whole society, but they rarely are. Public school teachers get the cross-section although mostly just within their particular age level (3rd grade, high school, etc.), and hospital nurses get it although they don’t get the time to develop the relationships and they see the people only in their difficult times.

I’m a Community College teacher, and an important part of the Community College culture is what it calls the Open Door policy. Everyone is welcome. They have to prove themselves by keeping up their grades, but everyone is given the opportunity. Even if they aren’t academically college-ready, we offer classes that can bring them to that level before they begin degree work. We get home-schooled students, students who already have bachelor’s and master’s degrees . . .We get students of every socio-economic level and every ethnic and religious background, more diverse than most of us would otherwise ever have a chance to know even existed in our communities.

I just finished week one of the new semester. I have 118 students and have seen each class twice so far. Even now, before I’ve even learned most of their names, the vast diversity enlivens me, and I know nothing yet except what I have observed or what they have personally chosen to share with me during this first week. I have Early College High School students, traditional college students, and older non-traditional students including a great-grandmother and a grey-haired college professor. I have numerous Asian students, a Muslim student who attends class in full Muslim dress, a Jehovah's Witness, and a roster of names that suggest quite a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. I have a student who wants to work with sharks and one who plans to be a Christian missionary. Another student who privately asked me not to refer to them with any gender pronoun. An academically strong student who struggles with a mental illness. Another who obviously has some special needs and gives me a hug as she leaves the classroom. A 21-year-old student whose mother has been given a not-long-to-live cancer prognosis, and she has warned me that if she’s absent that will probably be why.

I have one class that is 54% African-American. Last semester I had a class that was about 33% Hispanic, and my academically strongest class by far was 50% African-American. Two semesters ago I had a class that was about 33% LGBT. This means 10 students of a class of 30.

I’ve learned in my 28 years of teaching that when I wake up tomorrow these students will be the foundation of the community. My former students are dentists, receptionists, lawyers, cashiers, teachers, musicians, ministers, actors, realtors, tv personalities, waitresses, mechanics, activists, small business owners . . .They care for me when they are my nurses. They chat with me when I drive through to pick up a pizza or a box of chicken. I hire them to clean my gutters or mow the grass. They share their expertise about roofing or air conditioning or law or other countries and cultures. They friend me on Facebook so I can follow their lives as they become families, live their lives, and find their places in the world.

Every semester the first assignment I give my students is to write to me about their lives – their families, their backgrounds, their interests, why they chose my class, their future plans . . . Today I will begin to read these for this semester, and I will have 118 more stories. My student family, past and present, is now about 6000 people large, and they own a happy corner of my heart. Every diverse one of them.

Note: The best antidote for an ailing society is to share all our stories.

photo credit: juliesondradecker

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