Recently, I caught a bad virus that spun into a painful ear infection. When I went to the doctor’s office, my doctor peered into my ears. “There’s blood in there,” he announced before telling me both of my eardrums had ruptured.
I was gobsmacked. That certainly explained the pain, although I hadn’t predicted such a dramatic conclusion!
Over the new few days, I adjusted to my eardrums trying to heal. My hearing was affected, and it was hard to hear many of my students or fellow teachers. I found myself working extra hard to keep up in conversations. It was exhausting. Sometimes, after asking “what?” too many times, I would reluctantly, tiredly just give up.
But it was powerful, too. It was a stark reminder how hard it is to come to class with challenges. It’s exhausting, especially when you feel a step behind everyone else. It can make you feel alone and stressed. It’s tempting to check out.
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I had days where if I didn’t focus 100 percent on conversations, I missed important parts. I grew weary and embarrassed asking people to repeat themselves.
And although the minor hearing loss was just temporary – my eardrums did repair after a few weeks – it was a reminder for which I was grateful. It gave me a renewed determination to understand each kid and their challenges. It was refreshing to be reminded of the importance of seeing things from someone else’s point of view.
I teach students who face numerous challenges, such as learning differences like dyslexia, becoming proficient in English as a second language, and social emotional concerns. As a teacher, it is my job and passion to make sure all students can access the material to learn. There’s a lot to connect to before the material can even become relevant. I’m lucky to teach at a school that values the whole child. Understanding their struggles is vital.
I can’t help but think of the expression “opportunity gaps,” a replacement for the oft-quoted “achievement gaps.” Opportunity gaps seek to center the conversation on the unequal access to quality resources that students have, affecting academic success, rather than focusing on student performance. The academic achievement gap suggests a racial hierarchy based off of standardized testing, when in actuality we need to understand who has access to resources and opportunities, and how we – not the students – need to fix that.
Opportunity is what I thought about during the weeks where I struggled hearing. I am an adult with access to systems that helped me navigate the brief but annoying health issue. But as a teacher, I have to be attuned that not all kids have access to those systems. Recently, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools released their Annual Report of Student Performance for 2015-16. They spoke on the achievement gap, noting that African-Americans, Latinos, students with disabilities, students that are economically disadvantaged, and students with limited English proficiency were showing the biggest gaps.
This fall I attended a Racial Equity Institute training in Chapel Hill, and one of the first things they speak to is understanding systems. They use the metaphor of a dead fish: if you have dead fish, and only evaluate the fish to find the cause of death, you will probably continue to have dead fish. But if you evaluate the lake, you are more likely to find the root causes for why the fish are dying.
I try to think about root causes a lot with my students. Why is Student A having trouble getting homework done? Why is Student B missing a lot of school? Often it is said that education is the Great Equalizer. But limiting access and opportunities denies that chance at true equality.
In November, I attended a Moral Monday rally in Raleigh, led by the incomparable Rev. William Barber II and the North Carolina NAACP. For the first time since the election, I felt hope and strength for facing the challenges ahead. As I left, I was reminded that as a teacher I serve a similar role for my students: Make them feel loved. Let their voices be heard. Give them hope and strength. Create action steps to solve problems. I may not have the Rev. Barber’s ability to testify with such fervor, but I accept the challenges that lie ahead to be the leader my students need.
As a teacher, it’s always refreshing and vital to have experiences that help me see the world through my students’ eyes. It reinvigorates the fight for educational equity. It makes me more empathetic. Teaching is often like the fight for justice: it is hard work, and sometimes discouraging, but, as the Rev. Barber preaches: we must move forward together, and not one step back.
Katie Mgongolwa lives in Chapel Hill and teaches in Durham. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com.