• Grades PreK-12
Community trust

Building Community Trust

Tue, 9 Nov 2021

The power of connection can never be underestimated. We know this to be true when it comes to building relationships with our students. Really knowing who they are can help you establish a plan when it comes to their education and well-being. But a student is more than what they present inside your classroom.

In this video, Milwaukee Public School teacher Darnell Hamilton takes us through the importance of utilizing your students’ communities to understand them more holistically and help them achieve their potential.

Cultivate Your Genius and Nurture Theirs: Serving the Village

by Darnell Hamilton

It’s the old adage “It takes a village…” for which my years in education have been grounded. ‘Twas the village who sparked my interest in mathematics, giving me the creative space to create blueprints of my fifth-grade classroom for a scaling project. ‘Twas the village who put a basketball in my hands and named me varsity co-captain. The village immersed this young man from the Westside of Chicago into a world of opulence along the North Shore of Illinois, where carrying a few golf bags earned me spending cash and scholarship cash. With so much in my life to be grateful for, it is the deep involvement of the villagers which helped me live up to my potential. 

Whether it was Mr. Timber’s unflappable belief in my academic prowess, Ms. Krzyzyk’s structured approach towards preparing her eighth graders for high school, or Mr. Arreguin’s fatherly direct transparency about humility, their lessons hold a presence of longevity in my life.

As an educator, I am driven by the opportunity to participate in a young person’s holistic development. In Cultivating Genius, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad calls it helping students make “sense of who they are (identity), develop their proficiencies in content they are learning (skills), become smarter about something or gaining new knowledge in the world (intellect), and develop the ability to read texts to understand power and anti-oppression (criticality).” Through this model, I operate under the notion that at some point, I’ll hold a more substantial role in students’ lives. 

As part of their village, it’s important for me to understand the gravity of this dynamic in student-teacher relationships. When charged with the responsibility of nurturing a young person’s intellectual development and how they see themselves in the world, an educator must first come to terms with their own personal development in education. It’s through this self-reflection that their purpose for educating the hearts, souls, and minds of young people will become clearer. The lessons they teach students should always go deeper than surface level interpretations.

Take for instance where I mention three ways the village fueled my identity above. That math project was not just about calculating scale factors from feet to inches, and inches to centimeters: it showed me that math is a diverse language that requires patience for the complexity of numbers. Being named co-captain of the basketball team was not about boosting my ego: it instilled in me the duty of leading by example while expressing camaraderie towards a common goal. And while I did caddy for two specific reasons, the flowers that blossomed from that experience were intangible: I learned that hard work pays off in immeasurable ways, as I was able to spare my mother the mental and physical struggle of funding my undergraduate career at Marquette University. 

In my 14 years as an educator, adults who seem to have the most impactful interactions with young people are those who possess traits the national institutions of traditional education cannot teach. Parents of my former students call it being “cut from a different cloth,” in terms of their appreciation for those who serve their students. And that action word is where I draw focus: serve. The insightful Gloria Ladson-Billings (“GLB” if ya’ nast…no, NEVER call her that) speaks on this when referencing educators doing the personal work to become more anti-racist. She says that for educators to become more self-aware, “it’s not about who you are, it’s about what you do.” Hearing her speak in April did something to my soul: it helped me realize my purpose, serving as a vessel of vast exposure for young peoples’ life learning. A call of duty I have not taken lightly. Regardless of how I answered the call, there seems to be a disconnection for some others in the profession. There are educators who lack 1) the capacity to see how their inactions negatively impact their role with students, and 2) the will to make conscious efforts to become more self-assured in their students’ lives. The following utterances have become revelations about the inner-workings of some educators’ minds in regards to their relationships with students; responses like the ones in bold are my conscience itching to flee from my disciplined tongue:

  • “I’m too busy to call home to parents…”  – You know I was a special education teacher, right? How busy do you think I was on a daily basis? 
  • “It’s not like I can do what you can do…”Don’t do that. Is this going to be another ‘because I’m black’ conversation? The three aforementioned villagers in my life? Not a single black person. 
  • “We’re overlooking the fact that we have two amazing “resources” to send students to…”Those resources: two of the three black teachers in the program…me included. 

Words of this magnitude uttered at staff meetings, in private conversations, and at parent-teacher conferences paint a destitute picture. What once was thought of as an educator not knowing how to establish a relationship with a student, looks unmistakably like a teacher not wanting to. 

Consequently, another one of the student’s villagers has to pick up the slack. 

Building scholastic relationships takes time; time some teachers say they do not have. Such an answer should be deemed unacceptable, considering the high level of trust required in educating young minds. Without relationships, how far do you think your daily instruction will reach?

Student art display

Consider an art installation curated for students during Black Lives Matters Week in February of 2020. A selection of films were displayed, their synopsis revealed to students, stills of scenes cropped and posted, only to spark conversation on how their cinematic plots held real-world substance in our society. Lyrics of Kendrick Lamar’s “XXX feat. U2” were plastered above a hallway mirror emblazoned with hateful epithets students have heard throughout life. The result was powerful dialogue between teachers and students who wanted to convey their rage about the -isms that plague their existence. Without those relationships, would there have been any conversation whatsoever? 

Student Art Display

Or consider a piece from that same installation: a collection of 38 black fists of various hues hanging form the ceiling to signify the number of black staff employed in a school of 105 staff members, grouped with the statistical data of how many of those were actual classroom staff (14), and black male classroom staff (2). Students who never batted an eye to the number of black teachers in their school began analyzing just how many black teachers they’ve seen over the course of their academic career. Needless to say, their eyes were open after investigating those stats. For staff members, it forced many a tête-à-tête with the teacher responsible for such an exhibit. Yet everything displayed came from the students’ minds. If staff had only taken the time to listen when students spoke, they would have understood that. 

There were teachers who genuinely wanted to know where the installation came from, as their own implicit biases were being called into question. It was clear that some of my colleagues were in the learning phase of getting past their comfort zone. They came to me vulnerable, asked questions, and left with some education. They learned that to be a part of a student’s village, they’d have to “understand that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning”, something Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun present in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. From there, curiosity would lead teachers to seek out resources from Deanna Singh, Ibram X. Kendi, Gholdy Muhammad, Cornel West, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and the great James Baldwin. Welcoming their own ignorance was a step towards committing to learning more about their students.

The world of education should be a living world of lifelong learning for growth to occur. No room to grow can lead to a very oppressive culture, especially when a young mind is at stake. No one educator is all-knowing, which is why many of us exist in one space. And with that, there are bound to be differences of opinion. The beauty in this mixture is the room to share knowledge, opening the door for cultural norms of the entire village.

It is the hope that educators who took time to simultaneously nurture their students’ genius and cultivate their own will tag along for the ride our young people are set to embark upon. As for the non-cultivators and non-nurturers, they’ll persist in their fixed mindsets while the rest of the village catches on to serving a greater purpose. Though all hope is not lost for those at odds within the village. Through personal self-reflection, those who harbor antipathetic views will expose the vulnerability required in shifting rigid ideals into more culturally responsive pedagogy. And they won’t be alone, as they’ll receive encouragement from peers each step of the way. After all, it takes a village…