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It Wasn’t Common Core or More Money—Here’s How I Learned to Truly Value My Students

7/1/2015, 5:15 p.m. | Updated on 6/30/2015, 1:21 p.m.
The summer after my first year of teaching was a relief. And a surprise. Upon receiving the results of my ...
Josh Parker is a compliance specialist in the Office of Title I of Baltimore County Public Schools and is the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year. (Courtesy Photo)

— The summer after my first year of teaching was a relief. And a surprise. Upon receiving the results of my students’ language arts tests at the state, district and local levels, I found that my good intentions as a teacher did not equal student success.

I Went Searching for Answers

I looked for books, articles and research that would help me teach my mostly African-American students better. I expected the search to yield better practices and instructional strategies.

Instead, I discovered something more disturbing: My teaching was fueled by perceptions of what my students should be—compliant and ready-made, with great study habits and a love for reading—rather than who they actually were.

I cherished my own middle-class culture and customs above theirs. I did not value the culture of the students I taught.

I assumed that teaching from a quality curriculum and expressing a fondness for my students would result in their achievement and dedication. I was wrong.

Those actions communicated respect and duty, both important courtesies, but neither was deep enough to drive student achievement and transformation. Extended time in school, testing, and even culturally responsive instruction only work well when each effort is powered by a deep and abiding value of students’ lives and cultures.

Many Junes have passed since that first one and each summer got better when I committed to seeing the reality of my students’ lives.

I Went Into Their Communities

Visiting students at their places of comfort was always a joy.

I would see a struggling English student differently after she belted out a solo in church. The interactions between my boys became clearer to me after seeing the pecking order on the blacktop.

Classroom management is different with a student after you have cheered for them next to their parents at a championship football game. Great teaching is dependent upon the ability to match what you know about students to the skills and knowledge they need to learn in order to make a positive impact on the world.

When I really understood my students’ passions and perspectives, I began to create bridges between their daily realities and their future possibilities.

Their Interests Became Mine

The smile on a child’s face after you remembered their latest fantasy football triumph is enough to get into teaching alone.

It was through listening to endless “he said, she said” drama that I learned how storytelling could impact reading comprehension. They applauded my effort. I risked my pride to devise zany ways, like singing, to engage them and make the content they had to read and discuss relevant to their lives.

Sometimes it landed perfectly, other times, it flopped. My students were happy I tried. I went out of my way to show them that their experiences, preferences and culture would not be locked out of instruction.

If you want to know your students’ culture, books can help, but listening to, conversing with and really observing your students can get you to the truth of who they are quicker than anything else.