Back in the Classroom: How to Honor Student Experience

Shawn BushMission & Outcomes, Programs

It’s that time of year again; the smell of fresh marble composition notebooks, unaware of their temporary pristine condition. Fingers delicately configuring locker combinations and brains taking on the daunting task of committing them to memory. Dormant cafeterias lie in wait for the ensuing ambush, soon to be filled with students hungry for school lunches and social reprieve. Every new school year is fraught with excitement and anxiety.

But beyond these shared rituals, each student is returning to the classroom on their own personal journey of understanding and affirming their own identity. From the sound of the first bell in August to the handwritten yearbook farewells in June, it’s imperative that educators and supporting adults honor the student experience.

Students come from diverse and multi-faceted backgrounds. They bring their accumulated experiences and perspectives with them to school each day. In order for young people to feel safe to validate and explore their identities, the adults in said spaces need to be intentional about inviting student sharing in appropriate, carefully considered ways. If you are a teacher, school staff member, volunteer, parent, or other adult that regularly interacts with a young person, consider how your experiences may differ from those of your students.

What Adults Can Do To Honor Student Experience and Identities
Mentor and student at a WITS Mid-Day Mentoring Program

Learning for Justice provides a handful of ways adults can exercise sensitivity while students can share their experiences in a respectful way. Below are some of the ways this practice can be implemented into youth-led spaces.

  • Asset-based view of youth and unfamiliar identity groups
    • Approach is grounded in what students can do rather than what they cannot do or areas of need.
  • Commitment to avoiding and challenging stereotypes
    • Ask questions rather than assume what students lives or personalities are like.
  • Sense of openness and cultural humility
    • “How we engage with young people matters. Do we engage with them as children who don’t know as much as we do, or as fellow human beings with valuable experience?” (Pierson Russo 2021)
  • Willingness to let students define their own identities
    • It’s important to allow students to speak for themselves. They are the ones who can authentically reflect on their own experience.
Students Are Already Global Citizens
WITS Program students

If you don’t know much about another culture or have limited experience with a specific ethnicity or race, approach these conversations with a fervor to learn more. Often, adults are quick to dismiss student perspectives as incomplete or less valid in comparison to one’s other adult peers. However, it’s important to remember that students live in the world and are already global citizens just as we are.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) points out that “Many of our students are able to analyze issues, such as prejudice or child labor, through a comparative cultural, and often transnational, framework. They have crisscrossed political borders and negotiated boundaries of race, class, generation, and gender. They have lived the consequences—both positive and negative—of globalization. Many have an intuitive grasp of injustice because they have experienced it firsthand. They are heirs to rich literary and activist legacies.”

In order to truly set up space for students to share their own cultural experience, as well as be in an open space to actively listen to their peers’, they must first be recognized as sense-makers in the world.

It Is Okay To “Not Know” Everything

No matter how well-read one is or how far one has traveled, no one holds all worldly knowledge and perspectives. Because we experience the world through our own specific lens, our internal logic and observations can appear to hold an objective bias. There is a sense that one understands the world as it is.

However, this same collection of memories, influences, and assumptions are limited, often compounding or reaffirming the same point of view. This false objectification of one’s own ideas can lead to uneasiness when presented with others’ lived experiences. Students’ stories could challenge one’s sense of “how things work,” whether correct and incorrect, and/or the morals of right and wrong.

Cultural humility is necessary because it allows one to approach the understanding of our own self and others as a continual process with an openness to different contextual understandings. “Willingness to act on the acknowledgement that we have not and will not arrive at a finish line is integral to this aspect of cultural humility as well. Understanding is only as powerful as the action that follows” (Waters & Asbill 2013).

To honor student experience, we must genuinely listen with intent to learn and grow from the rich knowledge and experiences children have to offer. Consider that intentional listening an essential on your back-to-school materials checklist.

Please check out some of the resources linked in this article for more information on ways to reflect on cultural humility, ways to demonstrate that you value openness and diverse identities, and other relevant topics.