Teaching and Learning

Seeing Myself in my Students

“Hi Professor.” Without meeting my gaze, Jamal stood in front of my office door, awkwardly and shyly. He gave the impression that he would rather be anywhere else in the world. He had just taken his 2nd exam and he got a 55.  Just like on his first exam grade.

I knew that feeling well. The vulnerability. The embarrassment of having received such a poor score. The fear that your teacher would think that the grade was who you were and all you could do. That they might believe you weren’t trying or not taking class seriously. The desperation to believe that you could do better. I could relate because not so long ago, I was Jamal. Trying to make my dreams come true too.

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a teacher. As a child, a fun day for me was playing school and making my very reluctant siblings participate as students. Being the oldest in a family of five children, my siblings had no chance. I laid down the law Zambian style and it was not always diplomatic. I loved the feeling of being in charge and in control. Beyond that, I loved being able to help and teach my siblings. It always felt magical to me when I was able to explain something and they got it.

Years later, when I was about to start the 11th grade, my family emigrated to the United States. I found myself in a foreign culture surrounded by new faces and strange norms. I didn’t fit in. I was no longer the smartest kid in class, and it felt as though everyone spoke a hundred miles per minute.  This newness was enough to make me retreat and wish that things had never changed. I became quiet and shy. To make matters worse, I began to sense that some teachers had written me off by how they began to interact with me. For example, since I was quiet, some teachers rarely called on me. There were times where I wanted to participate in the discussions but some classrooms fostered competitive atmospheres and only a handful of students would participate. It felt as though the teachers were oblivious to the fact that only a 1/3 of students were engaged and they didn’t actively try to include everyone. In addition, I remember just one teacher making the time to sit with me one on one in order for me to come up with a success plan. The plan highlighted where I was and had specific actions that I needed to implement to be successful.

The negative experiences I encountered were very isolating so now, I always try to create culturally responsive classrooms. I do this by taking the time to know each student’s name, making that 1st day, an easy day where I allow students to introduce themselves and to share their goals in a very relaxed manner. I use this time to get a sense of who is in my class. We also talk about the potential challenges of the nursing program and I allow students to share potential success strategies.  Beyond that, I formally check in with my students to monitor their progress. This checking in process usually coincides with classroom assignments.

In the nursing profession, we have the first provision of the American Nurses Association’s Code of Ethics for Nurses which stipulates that nurses should practice with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity of every individual. I try to bring that to work with me every day. Compassion. You can never know what is happening with a student. In this case, Jamal was also an immigrant. He came to the U.S. from Jamaica to pursue his nursing career. While I knew this from the 1st day of class, I did not know that Jamal worked full time, that he was in his late 30’s and that he was the primary breadwinner and caregiver for his ailing parents. I was privy to this information because I took the time to treat my student as an individual much like how I treat my patients. Over the semester, we set up meetings, and we worked on a plan to help him succeed. This plan included the identification of resources and remediation tools.

There is no universal solution. I have learned that as instructors we have to be open and willing first. This was a lot of work for me but my desire to help Jamal learn was stronger.

Our students are showing us who they want to be by picking a major. They have dreams. We should never give up on them. We owe it to them to treat them as individuals with compassion. Let us never forget to be present. We can help our students by showing caring behavior, providing timely feedback, mentoring, validating students’ cultural differences, creating supportive environments, and role-modelling positive behaviors.

Jamal is a reflection of all my students. Over the years, I have had similar experiences with students from diverse backgrounds. The student challenges may vary, but ultimately my goal is to sit with students and meet them where they are at. My immigrant experience shaped the lens through which I see my students. However, I believe that we all have experiences that we can draw on to practice compassion. The question is, are we taking the time to reflect on our own journeys and how we can use those experiences to better serve our students?

There are no guarantees. In this instance, Jamal passed and graduated. This may not always be the case. Sometimes, students may not be able to complete their education for various reasons. However, I firmly believe that if an instructor is self-aware and takes the time to reflect on how to practice compassion, the act of being present for students may encourage the student to keep on trying rather than giving up. How you show up for your students makes all the difference.

For starters, I would recommend that we pause and take a moment to reflect on how or why we became educators. Maybe, like me, you will remember moments that were magical and you will be inspired. Second, I would ask you to reflect on what compassion means for you. Third, I would encourage you to think about your current circumstances. Are there things happening right now where you hope someone was showing you compassion? For example, are you in graduate school right now and struggling? Are you working full-time, with a family and in graduate school? Are you struggling with remote teaching? Are you worried about doing well on the peer online evaluations?  How would receiving compassion in these circumstances look like and how would it be of value to you? Are there specific things that you would need to receive which would exemplify compassion? Would any of these perceived activities or behaviors benefit your students? Are you able to put yourself in your students’ place and visualize how your being compassionate would impact them? Some of you might already be practicing compassion but are there areas where you can improve?

How would you know whether you were effective? In my case, Jamal’s demeanor changed once he knew that I wanted only the best for him and I made the time to meet with him. Other times, it was from the random thank-you emails I received from students in response to the encouraging emails that I send them to persevere. Sometimes I even receive emails after students have graduated where they share their own achievements and personal challenges. Some students have confided that my encouraging emails helped them to “keep going.” The funny thing is, I don’t consider anything that I do to be special. I am simply behaving the way that I wished my teachers had. I am seeing myself in my students.

18 Responses to Seeing Myself in my Students

  1. Bettina Berch November 20, 2020 at 11:31 am #

    Really important, well-said.

    • Catherine November 23, 2020 at 11:41 am #

      Thanks for reading, Bettina. I am glad you think it is an important topic.

  2. Mahatapa Palit November 23, 2020 at 11:45 am #

    Thank you for sharing, Catherine. We need to remember why we became educators.

  3. Gina Cherry November 23, 2020 at 6:17 pm #

    This was inspiring to read, Catherine, it speaks to my beliefs also—thank you!

  4. Janet Schwenk November 24, 2020 at 6:56 am #

    Thank you for sharing! This is such an important topic and a great reminder for us to reflect on our own experiences and practices. Well done!

  5. Mindi Reich-Shapiro November 24, 2020 at 7:20 am #

    Thank you, Catherine, for so beautifully illustrating what it means to be a culturally responsive teacher.

  6. Pat Boyle Egland November 24, 2020 at 11:02 am #

    Beautiful Catherine, Thank you

  7. Catherine Mbewe November 24, 2020 at 3:50 pm #

    Thanks for all the kind comments everyone. Writing the blog was a wonderful way to reconnect with my purpose especially in these challenging times.

  8. Judy Eng November 24, 2020 at 5:28 pm #

    Very well stated…A brilliant educator understands that we teach students as much as they teach us!!!

  9. Sadiqa Wahhaj November 24, 2020 at 5:50 pm #

    What a wonderfully worded reminder to practice compassion in every aspect of our lives. But especially as an educator, it is especially important to see yourself in your students and remember what brought you to the field of education in the first place.

    Thank you so much for sharing!!

  10. Christy Solorio November 25, 2020 at 12:20 pm #

    Beautifully written and always important, but even more so in these current times of added stress for so many of our students. Thank you for sharing this!

  11. Laura Penalo November 25, 2020 at 2:37 pm #

    Thank you for representing the nursing profession and highlighting that compassion does not just occur when we care for our patients. Teaching nursing students also requires compassion and lots of care.

  12. Anne Bove November 25, 2020 at 3:59 pm #

    Thank you for sharing.

  13. Anne Bove November 25, 2020 at 4:02 pm #

    Thank you for relaying such a personal experience so eloquently. We can all reflect on it and grow from it.

  14. Abdur Raheem Nizar-Moses November 26, 2020 at 2:43 am #

    Excellent work. I felt the sincerity in every word. This needs to be shared beyond BMCC virtual walls. Your students will only grow from your experiences and wisdom.

  15. Paula L Field November 28, 2020 at 6:43 am #

    Thank you Catherine! my belief exactly. Beautifully written.

  16. Paula L Field November 28, 2020 at 6:49 am #

    Beautifully done. Thanks Catherine.

  17. Yvonne Lomvilla December 1, 2020 at 4:07 pm #

    As an immigrant myself, I often struggle with feeling seen. Thank you for what you! Would love to have someone like you as a mentor!!

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