How do we become who we are? What forces and experiences influence the development of our identity? Parker Palmer in his book, The Courage to Teach, describes identity as “an evolving nexus where all the forces that constitute life converge in the mystery of self.” It is not a simple concept; he continues: It is “my genetic make-up, the nature of the man and woman who gave me life, the culture in which I was raised, people who have sustained me and people who have done me harm, the good and ill I have done to others and to myself, the experience of love and suffering – and much, much, more” (Palmer, 1998, p. 13).
In today’s world I believe that changes in society have given rise to a new generation of individuals whose stories about who they are are as unique and varied as the individuals themselves. The narratives are diverse and complex, and yet, at the same time, the stories are simple and sincere.
Ten years ago while doing research for my Masters’ thesis, I remember having conversations with young learners, inviting them to share some of their thoughts. Gathered together on the carpet, I asked my five, six, and seven year old students, “Who are you?” “How did you become who you are?”
My students were young, passionate, confident and innocent. They appeared not to struggle with my questions. Their answers were straightforward and concise. I remember Sonia who shared, “I’m Sonia. I’m a girl. I’m six.” It was clear to her that she was who she was simply because she was. Others shared. Their responses all seemed to narrow down to a common denominator – it’s all in a name.
I also remember visiting the grade six and seven class next door. In my hand, I carried with me a wonderful novel. I knew how difficult it may be to engage a class in a meaningful discussion when I had not established a relationship with the students. But I also knew that a powerful piece of literature could connect us and invite some powerful responses. I began by reading a chapter from Sandra Cisneros’ thought-provoking novel, The House on Mango Street. The young protagonist describes who she is. She speaks of her great-grandmother. “I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many woman sit their sadness on an elbow”(Cisneros, 1984, p. 4).
In today’s society we have the capacity and the opportunities to make our lives different from those that came before us. These young students spoke with sincerity and wisdom. When I asked them, “Who are you?” their answers were more detailed and focused than the younger, primary students. They described their individual personalities, habits, and strengths and weaknesses. I remember a student named Jaspreet. She shared, “I am athletic and I love to eat ice-cream. I don’t like rude people, and I don’t like practicing the piano. I want to be a professional soccer player when I grow up or maybe a doctor.” I asked Jaspreet’s teacher to share a little about Jaspreet. She told me that Jaspreet came from a traditional Punjabi family. Her grandmother I was told was the boss of the home. Jaspreet’s mother had little power. And yet, Jaspreet appeared to be a confident and determined young female who would shape her life the way she chooses.
I am struck by the importance of our responsibilities as teachers. As teachers, we are in the business of person-making. The cultures we create in our classrooms and schools, the interactions we use, and the curriculum we implement, can make important differences in the lives of our students and who they become. Who we are in the classroom can have profound influences on who are students become. These are important understandings we must remember as we work to create classroom cultures that will have positive effects on our students. This is not always an easy task.
I recall the words of Professor Heesoon Bai, from Simon Fraser University, who I had the privilege to work and learn beside. She spoke of culture operating as a “field of social reproduction wherein society transmits – mostly unconsciously – to its participating members’ norms of perception, beliefs, attitudes, and conduct.” She described education as foremost a “project and process of such transmission, but also a project and process of transformation whereby individuals become agents of personal and societal/cultural change.”
Teachers are agents of change and the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions they bring to their classrooms influence and impact their students’ own journeys to becoming who they are. I thank Heesoon Bai for helping me understand my own identity and in doing so, to better understand the identities of the students I have taught. As I continue working in schools with teachers, students, and their families, I must remember I am an agent of change and the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and actions which I bring to classrooms and schools influence and impact students’ own journeys to becoming who they are. My challenge is to accept, value, and nurture their developing selves in an effort to help all students feel a strong and positive sense of belonging.
I must remember, the way we live together in classrooms and schools, and the way in which we appreciate each other’s struggles to become who we are, can make a lasting effect on each of our lives. With this understanding, I work harder to create a special place – a place of belonging that sends the important message to all the members of our learning community: you matter.
Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes.
“Chrysanthemum thought her name was absolutely perfect. And then she started school.”
Leave Your Legacy, You Tube video: What will your name leave behind? www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgjmjqrIuy4
Building an ethic of care, Kelli