My first experience with teaching was brutal: I was a fill-in Sunday School teacher in my father’s church as a teenager. He was the pastor of a small multi-ethnic and multi-racial church (a combination of whites, African Americans, Hispanic immigrants, and Ethiopian refugees) in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Minneapolis, MN. In Sunday School we taught the children of the families that my father ministered to during the week. Those ministries often involved facilitating communication with social workers or helping the families find food and other necessities. I cannot count the number of weekends that I spent helping my father carry bags of donated food or clothing or the number of times that I helped these families move.
As a 17-year-old Sunday School teacher I was completely unequipped to handle kids from these difficult backgrounds. They had a variety of poorly diagnosed learning differences and emotional problems, many of them were in the process of learning English, and many had never known consistent or loving discipline. Meanwhile, I had no training as a teacher or social worker and I almost never had a lesson plan other than “talk about Noah; snacks are in the fridge.” My only strategy was to try to emulate my father’s seemingly endless well of compassion, while trying to keep anything expensive from getting broken. It was an exhausting and terrifying experience.
But as an adult, I can appreciate just how ill-equipped my teenage self was to handle that situation. More importantly, I am no longer so immature. Thirteen years of marriage have taught me how to listen. I have seen family and friends deal with addiction, depression, and other challenges and I have learned to be compassionate. I have friends and family whose own children have ADHD, dyslexia, Downs, and other differences and I have a better appreciation for the kinds of support that these families need from their teachers, schools, and communities. As I have matured, my fear of dealing with children from difficult backgrounds has melted away, leaving behind the desire to succeed where I once struggled.
Most importantly, I’ve spent the last year beginning to acquire the necessary training and experience to deal with a broad spectrum of children. This has reinforced my belief that all kinds of diversity are valuable: economic, ethnic, racial, linguistic, and cognitive. I’ve seen first-hand how a diverse, open, and accepting classroom can make school more interesting and engaging, both for the students and for the teachers. And I’ve learned the classroom management strategies and the kinds of teacher preparation strategies that I completely lacked as a naive teenager.
Boston and its surrounding communities are truly diverse places. It only makes sense to leverage that diversity for the benefit of us all–and that process starts in the classroom.