I wrote earlier about my love for mixtapes. One of the powers of the mixtape is to bring together songs that breathe life into our daily routines. I remember playing my mixtapes every day before practice or a big event where I needed inspiration (again, I had no game with my love interests, so it was usually relegated to sports). The mixtape always provided familiarity. I could always anticipate the next songs just after a few bars or even a few notes. There was always a comfort level that calmed me. I have found that when we give the mixtape to others, we also find new ways to connect. Others get to peek into your life and interests. There is a new connection that you build that allows for a deeper understanding of one another. I wish there was a way that all of our assignments as educators was met like a mixtape. I do believe, however, the next best thing we can do is to understand those we serve. Empathy, in my opinion, is the key to creating powerful learning experiences and opportunities for students to engage with you and the lesson. Whatever your job might be in education, I believe it is critical to our success that we understand what it’s like to be a teacher, student and community member.
Two weeks ago, I started my empathy project. I try to do this every year that I am in education. I might do home visits or in this case, I go undercover as a student. With a quick shave of the goatee and the purchase of navy blue khakis, I was able to blend in as a student and spend a day with them. My goal was to see the world through their eyes. Some students started to think I was actually the assistant principal, but I was able to distract them and blend in seamlessly as an ELD student. My plan was working. My schedule looked like this:
1st Period: Science 1
2nd Period: ELD 1/2
3rd Period: PE
4th Period: Spanish
5th Period: Math
6th Period: World Cultures
The first thing I noticed, regardless of class, was that routines are important to students! Our teachers chunked ideas throughout the class and consistently checked for understanding. I was relieved to have a set of routines much like the mixtape. I could predict what was coming. The other item I noticed right away was the need for structured student interaction. There was an element in each class that allowed me to collaborate with others. I found Spanish to be challenging as I was trying to pretend to be an ELD student in a new language. Now, I know some Spanish, but it was muy dificil when my teacher called on me. I was actually nervous! I can’t imagine what a newcomer must feel like on a consistent basis. I appreciated so much how our ELD teacher and our other teachers supported the students by giving think time. I knew I would be in trouble in PE. Back in my day, we mostly played sports for PE. Today would be different and my abs would never be the same. We actually had a series of workouts. I kept thinking, Slow down P90X woman! No relief in sight. I made it through the class and I found a new appreciation for PE! Those students are held to high standards! My abs can attest to that! That’s the mixtape effect. I had a chance to connect with the teachers and now I feel that I have a better understanding of what the students and teachers feel every day. I never want to lose my connection as a teacher. In addition, I decided that I would be a teacher for a period and I took the same PD (Wilda Storm Vocabulary) that several teachers were taking. I volunteered to teach a class and be coached by Wilda and be observed by several teachers. Let me tell you something… Was teaching always this tiring? My head was spinning several time thinking about transitions, checking for understanding, etc. I enjoyed being coached up and seeing how difficult change can be. I connected with my teachers and I felt that I was a series of B sides on some hit songs. Good stuff, but not necessarily radio material. I need to get into the classroom more and practice my craft as a teacher.
I truly appreciated being a teacher and student for my empathy project. I highly recommend that everyone consider it. If you are a teacher, be an administrator or counselor for day. If you are a classified member, try being a parent for a day. There are so many opportunities to better understand those we serve. I would argue that empathy is the most important skill we need to create powerful learning experiences from both the perspective of the teacher and the student.
When I was in high school and when I taught high school, I met many students who lived with many challenging situations. I marveled at how they made it through life. If you have ever done a home visit or visit a student in juvenile hall, you soon realize the power of empathy. This song gave me the chills when I heard it and taught it. It’s called Runaway Train by Soul Asylum and it captures the power of empathy and the hidden struggles of many students. And the other song, of course, is Everybody Hurts by REM. This song really made me think as a high school kid about other people. Made me take the focus off myself and try to understand others. When you know your kids, you can reach ’em. And once you reach ’em, you can eventually teach ’em.
When I taught To Kill a Mockingbird, I always loved what Atticus said to his daughter Scout about understanding others: If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
So, let’s climb into the skins of those we work with and for.
Dr. Ricardo Cooke is currently an assistant principal with National City Middle School. He has a passion for teaching, learning and leading. In his spare time, he teaches, reads and makes mixtapes. He has been in the education field for twenty years. He is a proud Mar Vista Middle and Chula Vista alum as well as a former teacher at Bonita Vista High School.
You can reach Ricardo Cooke at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter @RicardoCooke1 or follow his blog: http://soundtrackstheeducatorsmixtape.blogspot.com/2017/04/runaway-train.html