Olivia Brophy: Putting Students— Their Voices, Their Needs, Their Interests—at the Center of My Work

Olivia Brophy

Quotes from this story were originally published in the 2020 LV Gratitude Report.

A few weeks ago, an administrator at my site approached me about speaking at an upcoming staff meeting on “building student relationships in this difficult climate.” If you had walked up to me in January 2020 and told me that I would be asked to speak on this topic, I would have laughed in your face. This time a year ago, I was fresh off of getting a door slammed in my face by one of my sixth graders, a few weeks past a different sixth grader sending me an email detailing how I “wasn’t even a real teacher,” and about a month past another teacher removing a particularly distressed eighth grader from my study hall classroom due to a potentially triggering (for the student) breakdown in our communication. Before responding to this colleague, I took some time to reflect on my experiences.

When San Miguel D.C. shut down last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect from virtual learning, but I was hopeful that some of the stressors of the “real classroom” would be removed. Without these, I thought, I could connect with students on an individual level through questions on assignments or sending out the fun “extras” that we never got to cover in class. While to some extent and with certain students this did happen, I ultimately failed to realize the barriers that members of my classes were facing. When chunks of students began to “disappear” I knew that something had to change, but I struggled to find an answer that seemed feasible. The answer, of course, came in the most unexpected of packages—one of my most struggling students.

What this student needed from me was not something that either one of us knew how to navigate efficiently through conventional “ed tech” available to us at the time. By suggesting that we get on an Instagram video chat, however, this student found a shared medium where he felt that he was going to be able to actually participate in his education. That day, I set up a “teacher Instagram,” primarily for the purpose of contacting him. As quarantine continued, however, the account expanded to feature permanent posts sharing student work alongside temporary “story” posts that explained the daily classwork for sixth grade social studies.

Setting up this account was the “foot in the door” for my approach to my second year as an LV. For the 2020-2021 school year, I was asked to switch subjects and grades, moving from sixth grade social studies to seventh grade English language arts (ELA). I would be tracking with the same group of students and, after the experiences of the last year, I knew that I needed to take time to reflect on how I approached the classroom.

You see, I am a textbook candidate for the white savior complex. I am a young, white woman who grew up largely middle class in conservative suburbs. By virtue of being born in a particular socio-economic class and location in the United States, I was spoon-fed the values of colorblind racism from birth. This is the type of racism that says, “It doesn’t matter if you’re x, y, or z, you’re human.” This form of racism actively denies the existence of the unique experiences of Black, Indigenous and other People of Color that are shaped by their racial identities. The white savior complex goes hand-in-hand with colorblind racism because it uplifts the white experience over all others. White saviors approach Communities of Color and People of Color to say, “Look at me, look at what I can do for you. You need to be grateful to me—praise me—because I deigned to lift you out of this situation.” These manifestations of racism are very easy to enact as a white volunteer and are things that I want absolutely no part of.

Consequently, it became my mission to learn more about anti-bias anti-racist (ABAR) principles and strategies. I read resources from the newly renamed Learning for Justice, which is an educational associate of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I also attended webinars hosted by Black educators, such as Dr. Bettina Love and Dr. Gholnecsar Muhammad. Through this research, I discovered the foundations to my approach for this school year. Specifically, these are the Social Justice Standards, which outline goals in the areas of Identity, Diversity, Justice and Action, and Dr. Muhammad’s Historically Responsive Literacy, which takes a four-pronged approach to literacy focusing on developing Identity, Skills, Intellect and Criticality.

My goal in this pursuit was not only to become a more effective teacher, but also to put my students at the center of my work. When I first entered the classroom, I didn’t know the first thing about teaching. I knew that developing relationships was important, and I did my best to devote time and space to it in the classroom, but I ultimately fell back onto content, where I felt comfortable. In my first year, I taught my social studies class. In my second year, I aim to facilitate the seventh grade English class for my students.

What my work this summer taught me was that putting students—their voices, their needs, their interests—at the center of my work is more important and valuable than just about anything else. This has meant choosing books for ELA that reflect some aspects of their identities and challenged others. This has meant using current events as a way to ground our understanding of challenging concepts. This has meant not backing down when I am asked questions about being a white teacher in a school of Latino and Black students or letting up when racist words or actions occur in class. Often, this has meant being vulnerable with my students when I ask them questions that might seem threatening. How can I expect students to show up and work for me if I am unwilling to do the same for them, or if I am unwilling or unable to put the very principles we discuss into action right in front of them?

Particularly when compared to my experiences as a first year, I have been enormously successful in creating community in my class. At a fundamental level, what has made this possible is centering my students, valuing their thoughts about what we do in ELA, and always allowing room to adapt to situations in the moment. However, the work of challenging myself and addressing the ways that I show up—positively and negatively—in the classroom is also a critical and perpetual practice. By valuing these processes, my students and I have been able to address preconceived notions about subjects addressed in class, have conversations about topics that are deeply meaningful to us, and challenge each other to grow in ways that we didn’t know were possible.

No matter who you are or what you do, developing relationships starts with valuing the thoughts, feelings and interests of the people who are “entrusted to your care,” even and especially when this is personally challenging to your own comforts. While there are special difficulties posed by the current situation of our world, they aren’t anything new. Rather, these are long-standing challenges that have been uncovered and compounded by the situations we have found ourselves in. We, especially white educators, must no longer claim ignorance or bury our heads in the sand when it comes to facing the challenges before us. The time to de-center ourselves in favor of our students has long since passed, but—as I told my colleagues a few weeks ago—there is no time like the present to begin the work.

Olivia Brophy is a second-year LV serving at San Miguel in Washington, D.C., and lives in the Martyrs of Turon community.

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