On ‘Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion’

Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion

… And we know why kids drop out. We know why kids don’t learn. It’s either poverty, low attendance, negative peer influences. We know why. But one of the things that we never discuss or we rarely discuss is the value and importance of human connection, relationships.

James Comer says that no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship. George Washington Carver says all learning is understanding relationships. Everyone in this room has been affected by a teacher or an adult.

“Pearls before swine” – this is a kind of bitter and cynical view of having something good you can or do give, yet the recipients don’t or can’t receive it. They ignore it, dismiss it, overlook it. The relationship is what makes the difference. A good relationship not only opens up access to the good things you have to give – it also opens up possibility for the others to see what good that you yourself don’t know you have. It also opens up something inside the others themselves, something that keeps them trying, striving, seeking, improving. Is it because of some sense of security, safety, comfort? Possibly. Whatever it is, it’s the conscious and unconscious knowledge that they have that relationship with you.

… Some people think that you can either have it in you to build a relationship or you don’t. I think Stephen Covey had the right idea. He said you ought to just throw in a few simple things, like seeking first to understand as opposed to being understood, simple things like apologizing. You ever thought about that? Tell a kid you’re sorry, they’re in shock.

I taught a lesson once on ratios. I’m not real good with math, but I was working on it. And I got back and looked at that teacher edition. I’d taught the whole lesson wrong. (Laughter)

So I came back to class the next day, and I said, “Look, guys, I need to apologize. I taught the whole lesson wrong. I’m so sorry.”

They said, “That’s okay, Ms. Pierson. You were so excited, we just let you go.” (Laughter) (Applause)

It can be a two-way street, can’t it? It doesn’t need to have a steady flow of traffic, but just knowing that it’s a two-way street makes a difference. For the students, it is an indication that the teacher is also looking at him/herself, and relatedly, continuing to develop. For the teacher, it is a reminder that they can acknowledge their imperfection and vulnerability, that they don’t always perfectly grasp themselves, and also that others may see something they don’t. As for the two-way street helping build relationship, it’s that fundamental knowledge by the students that the teacher is also affected by them, that’s the cornerstone.

I have had classes that were so low, so academically deficient that I cried. I wondered, how am I going to take this group in nine months from where they are to where they need to be? And it was difficult. It was awfully hard. How do I raise the self-esteem of a child and his academic achievement at the same time?

One year I came up with a bright idea. I told all my students, “You were chosen to be in my class because I am the best teacher and you are the best students, they put us all together so we could show everybody else how to do it.”

One of the students said, “Really?” (Laughter)

This touches my heart. “Really?” The student didn’t have sight of him/herself. They either lost sight or they didn’t trust what others had been telling them to see. In either case, that message of, “You can do it”, opened their eyes from a miserable daze or slumber. The implied message, “We can do it together”, further works to give hope.

I said, “Really. We have to show the other classes how to do it, so when we walk down the hall, people will notice us, so you can’t make noise. You just have to strut.” And I gave them a saying to say: “I am somebody. I was somebody when I came. I’ll be a better somebody when I leave. I am powerful, and I am strong. I deserve the education that I get here. I have things to do, people to impress, and places to go.”

And they said, “Yeah!”

You say it long enough, it starts to be a part of you.

One of the ways I’ve come to have appreciation for my teachers is the consistent, persevering message that they give. When I was less mature, the message seemed repetitively boring, patronizing, too goody-goody. But that message became a part of me – it became my own.

On a drier note, in aikido, we sometimes hear about needing make technique our own, as opposed to a shallow imitation. When we repetitively practice ikkyo, at an earlier stage of practice we often think to ourselves, “This is repetitive and boring. I’ve heard this before. I think I get it”. Just as with the conceptual, verbal message of the teacher, our response may be to close our ears, shut off our senses upon recognizing the same message. By doing so, we stop striving. “Yes, I can”, becomes “I’m already doing it”. “I’ll be a better person” becomes “I am who I am. I accept myself – that’s a good thing isn’t it?”. “I’ll do the technique better” becomes “I’m doing the technique well enough”. All of these transformations mean that the message has stopped becoming part of you. You’ve convinced yourself you’ve already got it or that you don’t need it. As for the mentor – disciple relationship in aikido, this means you’ve ceased to “hear” your teacher’s message as embodied in their technique. As for (continuing) mastery of technique and polishing of oneself, you’ve ceased to perceive anything to polish or master, and consequently you don’t develop your ability to polish, improve, develop, and even assess, perceive, self-correct.

And so — (Applause) I gave a quiz, 20 questions. A student missed 18. I put a “+2” on his paper and a big smiley face.

He said, “Ms. Pierson, is this an F?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Then why’d you put a smiley face?”

I said, “Because you’re on a roll. You got two right. You didn’t miss them all.” I said, “And when we review this, won’t you do better?”

He said, “Yes, ma’am, I can do better.”

This is also heart-touching. That student thought to himself, he can work harder and not give up, so that he can meet his teacher’s expectations. While this may have included some sense of obligation or shame, it may also have been that teacher’s smiling face and encouraging words – the extrinsic motivation provided by the relationship can nevertheless be a constructive, positive one.

… after she retired, I watched some of those same kids come through and say to her, “You know, Ms. Walker, you made a difference in my life. You made it work for me. You made me feel like I was somebody, when I knew, at the bottom, I wasn’t. And I want you to just see what I’ve become.”

And when my mama died two years ago at 92, there were so many former students at her funeral, it brought tears to my eyes, not because she was gone, but because she left a legacy of relationships that could never disappear.

Can we stand to have more relationships? Absolutely. Will you like all your children? Of course not. And you know your toughest kids are never absent. (Laughter) Never. You won’t like them all, and the tough ones show up for a reason. It’s the connection. It’s the relationships. And while you won’t like them all, the key is, they can never, ever know it. So teachers become great actors and great actresses, and we come to work when we don’t feel like it, and we’re listening to policy that doesn’t make sense, and we teach anyway. We teach anyway, because that’s what we do.

I feel that I’ve benefited from seeing my teacher as a professional who is doing his job. I’ve caught glimpses of this person who is making an effort to be professional, fulfill his job, etc. This includes, as mentioned in the above quote, never showing that you don’t like someone, especially those tough ones. Doing so not only affects the relationship with that tough student, it affects everyone who sees how you relate to him/her.

Teaching and learning should bring joy. How powerful would our world be if we had kids who were not afraid to take risks, who were not afraid to think, and who had a champion? Every child deserves a champion, an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.

Is this job tough? You betcha. Oh God, you betcha. But it is not impossible. We can do this. We’re educators. We’re born to make a difference.

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One Response to On ‘Rita Pierson: Every kid needs a champion’

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