This post by NCTE member Justin Stygles appeared as “Understanding Differences in Isolation“ in “Notes from the Middle Level Section,” Voices from the Middle (September 2019).
When I left preservice teaching, educators used the term lifelong learner extensively. I believed in my whole heart that I would be a great, nay, the best teacher, if I truly invested myself in coursework and professional service. I became somewhat of a pedagogue. In turn, I limited myself to what I knew and the relatively short radius of commonality around me. After fourteen years of teaching, I never would have guessed, the more experienced I became as a teacher, the less I understood about teaching or learning.
As I learned over my career, teaching is more than devotion to pedagogy or becoming a pedagogue. Teaching is a person business. Students with the best possible relationships, teachers with the best possible relationships perform better. In isolation, I’d grew deeper inward, losing sight of what others face daily in their own lives. I lost my sense of empathy, forsaken for a sense of self, data-based decisions, and achievement.
Then I started Latin dancing lessons. In learning to dance, I saw myself as a student again—not an expert on learning—and I started to look at learning through the lens of my students. The struggles—incompetence, comparison, and confidence—overwhelmed me. I could not get through this learning alone. I needed relationships of trust, compassion, and kindness to move me. As I came to know other dancers, their support and their empathy fostered my learning. I think of this most dearly with a beautiful dancer who danced with me unabashed, dancing for sheer joy, creating a most majestic moment of my life.
When I enter the classroom, I can only understand what I’ve experienced. In other words, I empathize best with students when I recognize situations within them. My fault—I’m isolated from many understandings, many circumstances and ideals with which I am not familiar.
However, dancing has taught me that we can learn about each other and share in each other’s learning. I may not understand the backgrounds of every child I teach, but I can show my desire to learn about them. Together, we can attempt to create the sheer joy of learning simply by taking a risk in getting to know one another.
My teacher colleagues, as you move forward in your careers, redefine lifelong learning. I’m not talking about mile-long transcripts; I am talking about becoming a student of an art with which you are not familiar. From there, you can experience, as a student, what is necessary to develop the special dynamic between apprentice and mentor. The relationship you invite and foster can be like no other. There will be times when your dance with your students will be error filled. There will be moments where you feel like you’ve created a relationship with a student is everlasting. We begin by learning about our partners. From there, we can create a most eloquent dance between us and our students, the true majesty of literacy learning.
Justin Stygles, Middle School Teacher, NCTE Middle Level Section