Cynthia Mruczek Cynthia has a passion for teaching and working with school leaders and teachers as they address issues of equity in schools. As the Assistant Director of NIUSI-LeadScape, she works closely with principals and teachers to engage in professional learning that leads to making schools inclusive of all students. Cynthia worked as a teacher in elementary and middle schools in Phoenix for thirteen years before deciding to continue her learning at Arizona State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy.

I stumbled upon an amazing opportunity a few months ago. One that I’m sure many teachers wish would present itself at some point after their career in the classroom is over. I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office when a young woman approached me slowly and said, “Excuse me, but is your name Ms. M?” I was startled at first, mainly because in my current position at the Equity Alliance, Ms. M isn’t typically how I’m addressed. As soon as I made eye contact with this young woman, I recognized the fifth grader in her. Granted, she looked very different, but her eyes were the same. I responded, “Yes, I’m Ms. M. Oh my goodness. I’m so sorry, but I can’t remember your name. I know it starts with a C!” (I also remembered that she was a fantastic writer. Those of you who are teachers may be familiar with the strange phenomenon where you remember weird bits of detail about past students.) She smiled and reminded me that her name is Carolynn. Carolynn had been a student in my fifth grade classroom in 2001 (a more significant detail that I’ll share later.) We talked a few more minutes and exchanged phone numbers, as well as a promise of getting together for coffee in the next few weeks. Later, I marveled at the fact that 1) I remembered her, 2) SHE remembered ME, and 3) perhaps most importantly, I’d get the opportunity to sit with a former student and talk about her life then and now. This conversation solidified for me what being “culturally responsive” is all about.

The following week, we met for pizza and sodas at a local restaurant. She was so grown up, yet I saw many of the traits in her that I remembered from the “fifth grade” Carolynn. Perhaps one of the reasons that I was so thankful to see her is that Carolynn has Cystic Fibrosis, an inherited chronic disease (for more information, check out the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation). The prognosis for children with CF is very poor. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation reports that the average median age of survival for individuals with CF is in the mid-30s. There is no cure for this disease. I remembered that she was often ill and battled her sickness with a fervor I admired. She took her many treatments throughout the day without complaint and spoke frankly with her classmates about why she had to go to the nurse all the time. Her positive attitude and strength continues as an adult. After we caught up about her health, family, school, and aspirations, we began reminiscing about our time together in the classroom. As an emerging researcher, I realized this opportunity was priceless. I asked Carolynn, “What do you remember about fifth grade?”

The first thing we talked about was September 11th, which we both agreed was one of the scariest days of our school careers. We talked about the feeling of unease and just not knowing what it meant for the world and for us. Carolynn remembered that I am from New York, which made the students very concerned about me and my family. It was amazing to think about the impact of days like that and the role schools and teachers play in helping children making sense of the world.

The second thing Carolynn remembered was a day I kept her afterschool to look on the internet for a pen pal. Her health was a big struggle for her at the time and she often expressed frustration that no one could understand the way she was feeling or how hard she had to fight. Her eyes lit up as she recounted how we did a search on the internet for support groups for kids with cystic fibrosis. As she told the story of that afternoon, it started to come back to me. I recalled that we found a girl somewhere in the United States who was a little older than Carolynn at the time and had posted her email address. Carolynn asked if we could email her that day, and so began a pen pal relationship that lasted for a while. I don’t know what they wrote about or how often, but the way Carolynn talked about it, made me think that it was an influential day for her.

You’re probably asking yourself, “What on earth does this have to do with culturally responsive teaching?” I believe this example can serve as a reminder that a very important aspect of being responsive to students is the personal, genuine, positive relationships we develop with students. Carolynn didn’t say, “The best day of fifth grade was when you gave that lecture about colonial America.” She didn’t reminisce about the value of learning her multiplication tables. She recalled emotional and personal interactions we had in that classroom. I think this can serve as a lesson for teachers. We must remind ourselves that while we have monumental pressure from all directions; standardized testing, accountability, attendance policies, performance pay, etc., the real testaments to our success lie in the relationships we develop with our students.

Villegas and Lucas (2002) offer six characteristics of culturally responsive teachers. They are 1) sociocultural consciousness, 2) an affirming attitude toward students from culturally diverse backgrounds, 3) commitment and skills to act as agents of change, 4) constructivist views of learning, 5) learning about students, and 6) culturally responsive teaching strategies. I think my conversation with Carolynn over lunch speaks to a couple of these characteristics, but for me, one in particular stands out. Teachers often talk about the need to learn about their students; to get to know them as daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, aspiring scientists or future theatre majors. However, this can be a scary prospect because it opens us up to be emotionally and personally connected to our students. I will admit, at first I was scared to talk to Carolynn about her disease because of the dire prognosis. By being open to those conversations and truly valuing Carolynn’s experiences, we forged a strong bond that lasted well beyond the classroom. Learning about our students on a deep, personal, and emotional level allows us the opportunity to teach a myriad of lessons to students; not only about academic content, but also as important members of a learning community. Plus, we may learn a little something about teaching, and ourselves, as well.

Villegas, A. M., & Lucas, T. (2002). Preparing culturally responsive teachers: Rethinking the curriculum. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(13).

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5 Responses to “The Power of Learning About Students: A lesson from the past by Cynthia Mruczek”

  1. Marge Scanlon on 3/7/12 7:38 PM US/Eastern

    I have been a teacher for thirty-nine years and I am in touch with many students that I had in the 80s and 90s. I fear that the kinds of excitement about learning about stuff and about each other is now lost in the slog for higher and higher test scores. To teach a child what they need to learn, rather than what is prescribed for them to learn, will always be the best part about teaching, and from the kids I talk to who are now grown-ups – the most memorable parts.

  2. Sue Ringler on 3/8/12 11:41 AM US/Eastern

    What a moving, inspirational post. Thank you.

  3. Jennifer Huber on 3/9/12 5:17 PM US/Eastern

    Best example of culturally responsive teaching and learning I’ve read in a long time. Not only did it touch my heart but it also ignited my passion for students and reminded me to broaden my thinking about responsivity! Thank you!

  4. Elizabeth Mihocka on 4/4/12 11:08 PM US/Eastern

    It must be very rewarding to know that you made your small piece of the world a better place by positively “touching someone’s life”.

  5. Carolynn West on 4/24/12 9:39 PM US/Eastern

    This was a very moving day for me, because it brought back so many great memories within seconds of remembering who she was. She was one of my favorite teachers of all time, and on top of it all, there were so many things that I did remember on a personal level, and even as being a student. She truly changed my life in a way by helping me, helping me overcome so much by just being a wonderful teacher to listen to how I feel and being supportive among many different obstacles that I had to overcome. Ms. M was and still to this day an unforgettable teacher!! Thank you so much.

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