More than demographics: Knowing your students as complex people

When I was in seventh grade home-ec class, our teacher asked us “Who are you?”

Most of us attempted answers like, “I’m a seventh grader…”

But she would cut us off, saying “No… that’s what grade you’re in. Who ARE you?”

“I’m a girl who plays the flute.”

“Nope, that’s your gender and something you do. Doesn’t answer the question.”

After we all huffed in frustration for a while, she brought us to this conclusion… Identities are complicated. They change over time, they include labels that can be interpreted differently depending on the context, some parts of our identities change other parts… We are all very, very complicated. 

The many ways we are who we are

When we’re talking about identities in the classroom, often we get stuck focusing on race or gender, or other basic demographics. But everyone has a range of identities of varying personal importance to them. A quick exercise: Think about how you identify in each of these categories:

  • Age/ generation
  • Ethnicity
  • First language 
  • Gender
  • National origin
  • Physical/mental/psychological ability 
  • Race
  • Religion/ spirituality
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Socioeconomic class
  • Familial titles (parent/son/cousin, etc)

To take it a step further, consider which of these identities are important to you, and which are mostly irrelevant to how you move through life. For example, someone who is an auntie might take their role really seriously, and others may be an auntie in name only. 

Identities in the classroom

It’s human nature to categorize other people, just to make things simpler for ourselves. But that gut instinct to put people into boxes and make assumptions based on those labels is stereotyping. The stereotyped thoughts can lead to biased actions and decisions. 

Here are some actions you can take, as a music teacher, to celebrate the diversity of identities in the your classroom:

  • Be aware of your own thinking. I had a therapist who told me all the time: “You can’t always believe what you think!” Somehow we believe we have control over our thoughts and assume that our first thoughts are always right. That’s often not true! If you were raised with media and a social context that shamed fat people, you’ll likely have a knee-jerk negative reaction to seeing a fat person. You don’t have to listen to those initial thoughts or reactions. Ask yourself: Why do I think that? Is that true? Where did that actually come from? You may not be able to control your first thought, but you can redirect your second thoughts, and then your actions.

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”

-Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
  • Use student data ethically. Say it with me now: “My students are more than data!” Having demographic information about your students is an ok place to start, but making decisions based 100% on that data is insufficient. Knowing your students as the unique and complicated people they are– what they value, what their dreams are, what gets them excited about music– will yield less biased results. 
  • Design student leadership into your program. Nothing reveals a student’s true nature better than giving them decisions to make and issues to argue. Not only will opportunities to lead and choose help you understand your students better, but it will also put them in the driver’s seat. 
  • Ask questions, listen, and act accordingly. Get to know your students personally. This happens in both tiny little moments and in more formal ways like surveys, activities, and town hall conversations. However you ask your students more about themselves, these tips will bring you from curious to action:
    • ask open-ended questions
    • listen without judgment– repeat what they say for understanding
    • remember, record, or write down what was said 
    • reflect on how their words can change your classroom
    • make the change! 
    • ask for feedback on the change(s)

Knowing your students as individual people will not only open your mind to new musical and educational ideas, but it will also open your heart– and theirs too!

Part of this content is adapted from my self-guided course “Ethical Arts Educator” returning in summer 2023.

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