So this past quarter, only one teacher failed my advisee with an IEP. That teacher was me. And I didn't just fail this student I like....super failed my advisee (we're talking less than 50%). I didn't realize I was the only teacher to fail my advisee until I saw his report card during parent teacher conferences this past week.
My advisee (who I'll call Nick) walked into my room and nervously asked "Ms. Tsai, can I talk to you?"
What? A student actually decided to approach me after school to ask for help? This is UNHEARD of !
"Yeah, what's going on Nick" We sit next to each other and I watch as Nick nervously looks around, trying to figure out where to start.
"Well, I'm failing your class. And...it's kind of ironic because...I mean me and my friends we agree...your class isn't super comfortable to be in. Like...there isn't enough space and I don't have enough time to do the warm ups. That's why I'm failing and... I just wanted to let you know that I'm not comfortable in your class"
Internally I'm screaming with excitement This kid had the guts to actually look me in the eye and say 'I don't feel comfortable in class. I need help'
Parents, adults, and teachers are constantly reminding teenagers to speak up and ask for help. You're failing geometry? Ask more questions! You're failing math? Did you ask the teacher for help? You're struggling in science? Ask the teacher what you can do to be better!
But how often do teenagers actually admit that they're struggling, let alone admit their struggles to a superior and ask for help? How often do teenagers speak up? Not as often as I would like.
I was so proud of Nick in that moment. I thanked him for being brave enough to be vulnerable with me and admit he needed help. Together we came up with a plan for changes that would help Nick and his classmates feel more comfortable.
Speaking up- it's a skill that not everybody has the privilege of practicing . Our society uses power to silence......
Adam Galinsky, an American social psychologist, writes about the three conditions required for somebody to speak up.
1. A feeling of Expertise
2. Moral Conviction
When people have a feeling of expertise, moral conviction, and allies...they are in a safe place to speak up. Unfortunately, for many people, and especially young children of color, it's not safe to speak up, especially in situations where shame is used to silence students in school.
In fact, Galinsky describes what he calls a "range of acceptable behavior". When faced with an unjust or difficult situation, a student has two options. They can be silent, or they can speak up. Depending on the amount of power that student has, they will experience those two options at different ratios.
On one hand, teachers need to set boundaries with students, and we need to hold students accountable for their actions. We need to teach boundaries, expectations, responsibility, and accountability. At the same time, a classroom where students feel silenced is no good either.
So the question becomes...how can I get more of my students to be like Nick? To be brave enough to respectfully speak up for themselves when they need help. To have the courage to approach a superior and advocate for their own needs.
As the teacher, I have the power to shift the ratio of acceptable behaviors to create a culture where students are empowered to speak up with more frequency. Here are some ideas for how to do that.
1. Grow Moral Conviction for Speaking Up
As a woman of color in a workplace where I'm among the youngest on the staff, speaking up is something I am continuing to practice. I hope to practice this skill alongside my students. A culture where students feel empowered and safe to use their voice suddenly doesn't seem so far-fetched or threatening. It's time that we stop silencing students in schools with shame and instead work towards creating a sense of safety for speaking up. And if we start with schools, the students we graduate will become adults who will continue to empower others and themselves to speak up.
In doing so, we disrupt power and create a more equal culture.