Give Students A Chance by Getting to Know Them

This post is second in a series of one on one conversations with students in order to hear their stories.  Who are our students?  What does their education mean to them?  What effect do teachers have on them?

Today’s interview is with Genesis, a student in Cynthia Castillo’s class at RISE Pilot school at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles.

I’m the one in charge a lot of the time,” Genesis tells me early on in our interview.  We’ve pulled two chairs into the quiet, clean hallway at Augustus Hawkins outside her English class, and she’s telling me about her home life.   Latina, with blond-highlighted hair, an easy smile and a diamond piercing that glitters above her upper lip, Genesis is confident and charismatic.  She is president of her class, something that seems to come naturally to her because she runs her household at home as well.  Her mother is debilitated by migraines and, according to Genesis, has to stay in bed much of the time.  Her stepfather has two jobs, one as a baker and one as a chef at a supermarket, so is home only on Saturdays from 4 till 8.

That leaves Genesis to keep the family running smoothly.  Every morning, she wakes up early to get her four sisters and her brother ready for school; in the afternoons and evenings, she supervises them, making sure they do their homework and eat dinner.  Though these responsibilities might make many teenagers resentful, Genesis takes pride in helping her family out.  “My mom’s been through a lot,” she says.  Years ago, her father walked out, leaving her mother to struggle alone to raise the family and put food on the table.  Her older sister ran away; though the family has since stabilized, Genesis still has nightmares about the bad years.  She seems determined to protect her mother from further pain.

Though she’s an academic standout now, Genesis wasn’t always a strong student.  In 9th grade, she attended Manual Arts High School, the local district high school.  It wasn’t terrible, she says, describing the place as “calm,” but teachers took no interest in her.  “I never had a conversation with a teacher,” she says.  Lost and anonymous, she felt no motivation to study.  Still, she knew she wanted more out of her education, and when she heard about Augustus Hawkins, the new high school opening in the area, she enrolled.

The decision changed her life.  Here, teachers took an interest in her; they knew her personally.  She found herself in Cynthia Castillo’s homeroom, where they talked about leadership.  “I said, I wanna do it.  I need to do something.”  Cynthia’s response was immediate, connecting Genesis with student council and a variety of after-school clubs.  For Genesis, these extracurricular activities were where she began to build a new identity as a leader and a student.  She started doing homework and turning her grades around.

She credits her teachers for this turnaround in her self-image and motivation.  “Every time I have a conversation with Ms. Castillo, I get new ideas,” she says.  “Ms. Castillo doesn’t treat me as a student.  She treats me as a person.  She wants to help me be better.  She treats me like an adult.”  All of her teachers at Augustus Hawkins, she says, care about her as a person, “even the really strict ones.”

Now she hopes to attend USC, which will be a long shot because despite her excellent grades for the last year and a half, due to her rough 9th grade year at Manual Arts, her GPA is only 3.3.—strong by most standards, but probably not enough for ultra-competitive USC.

Genesis remains optimistic, her eyes on graduation and success.  Though she’s not sure what she wants to do professionally, she’s thinking about being a surgeon or a lawyer.  “I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with lawyers,” she says.  “My stepdad was in jail and nobody would help him.”

When I ask if she plans to live with her family, she breaks into a huge smile.  No way.  Not at first, anyway.  “I want to get away from my family, I want to have my own time.  I want my own house,” at least for a little while.  For all she’s given to her family, she’ll have earned the luxury of independence and privacy.

I ask what her message might be to people reading this blog who want to understand students better.  “People should know that they need to give kids a chance to prove themselves,” she says.  “Don’t assume you know them.  Always really look into people.”

As I watch her walk back into the classroom, I think about the many complex factors at play in Genesis’ life, beginning with her exhausting responsibilities, both physical and emotional.  Because her father is gone, her stepfather works two jobs and her mother is incapacitated by illness (I’m no psychiatrist, so excuse this unprofessional diagnosis, but Genesis’ mother sounds clinically depressed to me), Genesis is pretty much without adult support from home most of the time.  I often hear people condemn parents like hers, asking why they don’t care enough to take a role in their children’s lives. But a stepfather who works two jobs on his feet to support his family cannot be regarded as uncaring.  A mother who is unable to get out of bed in the morning can’t take play a role in her children’s lives until she gets the medical help she seems not to be getting.

When we talk about effective teaching, how are we addressing our students’ need for adult guidance when the stresses of chronic poverty have torn families apart?  How can we separate this need for personal guidance from the need for what we call “instruction”?  Without teachers who cared about her, talked to her, listened and took the time to get to see the person she really is, Genesis would have been lost.

How many students like Genesis are there right now, in classrooms across this country, who nobody has time to get to know?

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