Maria P. Paradiso-Testa ’08M ’22Ed.D., an adjunct professor in the Psychology Department, published an op-ed on Aug. 18 that appeared in several newspapers belonging to the USA Today Network, including the Asbury Park Press and Courier Post. Her original op-ed is available online to individual subscribers of those outlets. Her essay, about the challenges that students face as the back-to-school season begins, has been updated with minor corrections.
Sitting here and thinking, I remember that feeling of going back to school after summer break. All of the emotions building up to the week before, the day before, the night before and the bus ride to school. Being in the mix of that as a child was quite different then, as opposed to how I feel about it all now. The anticipation, the excitement, being nervous and the wondering all still occur. But after having this conversation with students this year, as an adult, as a mother and as an educator, some of the thoughts concerning students make me think differently.
Students shared some of their wonders with me: who will the teachers be, will any of them like me, will my friends be in my class, will I have any friends, do they have school supplies for us or do we have to get everything ourselves, am I getting new clothes, will I get a good backpack, I hope I get new sneakers, will I get lost in the halls, is anyone going to bother me, who will I eat lunch with, will this year be different — will it be better? None of their concerns address academia, the rigor of it all, or straight As. This is what the students bring with them on the first day of school.
For some people, summer may have included a vacation, for others maybe a staycation, and for others … perhaps not so much. When that first day of school comes this year, it is my desire that we all are prepared to address the cares and concerns of the students, whether directly or indirectly. We have to bring the balance. The balance of acknowledging and celebrating any special events students experienced over the summer with this new year in school and how EVERYONE will be included in ALL opportunities moving forward. Yes, EVERYONE … and EVERYONE means ALL, and ALL means ALL. Such a strong, inclusive statement. But does it really play out as it is stated?
We’ve all heard about, and some have experienced: favoritism, partiality, nepotism, prejudice and bias. Let’s start there, with bias. Does bias influence how we teach, how we interact, how we establish relationships? Yes, yes and yes! Does it affect student learning? Yes! How does it look in your school, in your classroom? It is important for us to realize that the kids know what it is and what is happening. They know if we think they are smart, if we like them, how we treat everyone and if we care. The legendary, late Rita Pierson said, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” And probably the reason they might not like us is because they think we don’t like them. My heart breaks right here.
Let’s go back to the emotions we all have for the first day of school. That excitement and anticipation should be the overarching theme, yet too often, the emotions are overshadowed by the fear of being overlooked, rejection, exclusion, and being ignored to the point of hoping to be invisible. Because “IF” their hope is to be not seen, not heard and not valued, then, when all of that happens, they believe they were right and they believe that’s a win. But it is not, and it is our job to ensure that ALL students will be seen with their unique Vision for their future, will be heard through having a Voice that matters and will be Valued for who they are.
As we begin this new school year, may we all remember that each and every student deserves a fresh new start, not to be judged by what other people say about them, by last year’s performance, by their family members, by where they live, by their socioeconomic status, by how they speak or by how they dress. Because if we label students, we will teach them that way and treat them that way. One educator said it this way: “If we call them low-learning, we will teach them low.”
This year, when the students come through the door on that very first day, let’s give them the hope that they ALL deserve, the hope for a fun-filled, power-packed year with more than exposure but access to multiple opportunities for success for ALL. To all of the teachers, administrators, families and community members, we are not alone, we are all in this together; “it takes a village to raise a child.” For many students, the classroom, your classroom, will be the only safe haven and oasis the students experience, not just for the year, but for life.
Thank you for taking your time to read about some of the students’ aspirations and concerns for their first day of school. My name is Maria Paradiso-Testa, and I hold a doctorate in educational leadership from Monmouth University. If you are interested in joining the greatest profession in the world, please connect with me; I would love to talk to you about educating the next generation of leaders.