A Teacher as a Father
By Rob Schroeder
January 12, 2016
Evan Taylor, BA Urban Education: Elemetnary Education '14, writes at the Young Teacher's Collective about his experiences teaching third grade at Roosevelt Elementary School in Dolton, Ill., where his students look up to him as a father figure:
Students often ask me why I do not have any kids. I tell them I have a whole bunch of kids. I always have and will refer to my students as my kids, since that is the bond I build with any student I come in contact with throughout my journey as an educator.
This year I tell them I have fourteen kids (since I have fourteen kids on my roster). They look at me with a sense of bewilderment when I say that, but when I begin to list off their names there is a small acknowledgement of the love that resides in the classroom space. There is a bond that I form with my students that starts on Day 1, one that builds a sense of trust and belonging within this classroom space. For some students, it may be the only space where they can truly be kids and have someone else look out for them. For some students it is a space where they can be open and honest about their struggles and know for sure that they will have someone there acknowledging their pain and struggles. For others, it is a place where they can simply be who they want to be (and who they want to be may be considered weird in other places, but in my classroom we are the epitome of weird).
My classroom is not a classroom, but rather a living room in which the family meets everyday to learn and to catch up with each other.
Last week, my kids and I were reading an informational text entitled City Homes that required us to differentiate between house and home. Opening the floor for discussion, I first sought to find out if they thought there was a difference and then to explore the differences. Many of my student could not really understand the difference between a house and a home, so I told them that saying— “home is where the heart is”. When they still didn’t get that concept, I began to walk around to different places in the classroom and told them that I was at home. I went by my desk and I was home. I went by the group work table and I was home. I walked down the hall and screamed back at the classroom, “I’m still at home.” No matter where I was within the classroom space, I could be at home.
When I opened the floor back up to the students to see what they thought the aforementioned quote meant, they said that basically wherever you are comfortable you are at home. I then prompted them by saying that at the beginning of the year this classroom may not have felt like a home, but now it may feel like that to some of us. When asked to support this claim, the students’ responses made my heart melt. One student said it felt like home because it is loud in my classroom just like it is loud at their house. Another student said it felt like home because we all know each other in the classroom. Another student said that it was like we were a family. Then a student said that I was like the dad…
Everything in my mind and my world paused and resided in that moment…
Here I am, twenty-three going on twenty four, and these children see me as a father figure….
I have a student who reads below grade level. He has the heart the size of a whale (too bad PARCC doesn’t measure heart). Other teachers give up on him or spend time telling him that he can’t read instead of teaching him how to break down a word to discover it for himself. During after-school I was working with him, helping him break down words using his knowledge. For example, he was trying to read “spectator,” so I broke down the blends and sounds so that he could break down the word for himself. The “sp” sound he derived from Spiderman. The “tat” he understood from recognizing the difference between short e and long e. The “or” he got from his favorite Marvel character Thor. All the while, other students have begun to look on and see how the word relates to the sounds in his life dictionary. A young man who will not “behave” in his regular teacher’s classroom has sat at the foot of my desk to be a part of this learning moment. He has even gone so far as to tell others to be quiet because he was learning. Another student who was playing a game and talking decided to come and witness this moment. The two boys that joined even tried to take over my teaching, since they too wanted to help. My classroom is a living room. We were all sitting on the couch, learning, and other relatives came to sit near the couch, wanting to become part of the memory. That is what my classroom is about: creating moments where the classroom becomes the living room, the place where an individual’s life dictionary is used to teach them how to break down the world into their own terms.
I began working as a part of a mentoring group working with third grade boys. We sat and we discussed their lives and issues that they deal with on a daily basis. We talked about anger and controlling it. I talked to them about how I often get angry and how I control it. I talked to them about how as they grow into young Black men their anger will be seen as a threat and, in the words of the writer Danez Smith, how “Black boys are deemed monsters until they are proven ghosts” (Danez Smith, Not An Elegy for Mike Brown). I talked to them through the Incredible Hulk, though I was thinking of Baldwin’s words— that I (and they too) are always angry, but they must learn how to control it. For they are not allowed to have angry outbursts because their skin tone and body and history is automatically read as a threat.
After we close this discussion, we get some pizza. On the way there a young boy sees the safety facilitator and says again, “Mr. Taylor is like my dad.” His words repeat in my mind, echoing off of these cranial walls…
I have been raised by a man and have had the privilege of having both of my parents in my life. It’s a privilege that I have learned I took for granted when I see some of my students. I have been brought up around Black men who have showed me what it means to be the perfect trilogy of Black, male, and father. I have the privilege of being brought up by women who have shown me what it means to be Black, male, and father. I have ancestors whose prayers vibrations I ride on that help me continue to grow more Black, into a better man and into a great father and into a humble teacher. These moments that have happened in the past week are not all of the moments that show the beauty in being a Black male teacher and also the responsibility. There are many other moments. When I worked in a kindergarten class, the young men would come up to me and try to push my veins down and prevent them from rising, like how America will do them when they rise. The young women would pull my beard and ask if it was real, like America will do one day to their hair and their dreams and their realities.
Upon being called father, I reflected and tuned into these moments and looked forward to them. Life is different when you are a Black male teacher who is called to wear many hats. Teaching is different when you are a Black male because you are called to be a guiding light and beacon—not to create miniature versions of yourself, but to shine so bright that your children can better see who they are becoming and the possibilities that they have.
Upon being called father, I was humbled.