Why the Baggage Matters


by Marcia Carmichael-Murphy


When I originally sat down to write this blog, I had some pretty solid notes. As I reflected on my writing, it was technical, doctoral, squeaky clean. The only cognitive state it invoked was that of boredom. It was mind-numbing and did not reflect the educational things that matter the most to me – students, who they are, where they come from, and why the hell it matters. Excuse my disclaimer, but I felt it necessary to share this process with you before I jump in. Our experiences shape us, and we are the sum of them whether to our benefit or our detriment. This includes our students. Especially our students.

I acutely and innately understand some of our district’s most wounded students because I have walked in their shoes. My experience as a child and adolescent could be described as nothing short of tumultuous – biracial in a segregated community, the child of addicts, an incarcerated father, stints in shelters, neglect and trauma, constant moving and upheaval, and an extended stay in foster care. While generational differences separate me and them, the parallels are still there between my youth and that of my students. My experiences shape me, but also allow me to spot the kids who are dragging around baggage, build a relationship with them, and support and empower them to move to the next level.. I am passionate about supporting wounded students. To support wounded students you have to unpack their baggage.

Kids come to us with all kinds of baggage, and the possession of such cannot be held against them. Blaming students for the baggage that has been bestowed upon them is counterproductive. I do believe that kids can and must be held accountable for their actions, but we have to remember that they are kids who both victims and survivors of their circumstances. We as teachers sometimes forget they are humans. To that end, I find that many teachers feel like they cannot or should not deal with a student’s baggage. Often, they want kids to leave their baggage at the door or they want kids to tamp it down and just get to work on the lesson. The former is impossible and the latter only leads to a compounding of the issues. If a student is wounded physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually, those wounds can be stumbling blocks to their learning. Part of our job requires us to be prepared to help them unpack those bags when we can, and know the resources at our disposal when students’ needs surpass our abilities. If we do not help them unpack their bags at school, they are merely tourists in our classrooms and schools. In addition to personal baggage, urban teachers who serve in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools must help the kids unpack the institutional baggage that they carry so that students can learn and move forward.

I know what some of you are thinking, “I am not a therapist/psychologist/counselor and dealing with kids’ baggage is not in my job description”, “ I love XYZ content, relationships are not my thing”, or “I teach/help/mentor all kids the same, regardless of who they are”. All of these statements can present as paradoxes for urban educators. However, the line from our job description, “other duties assigned by Principal…” could be interpreted as the charge for teachers to be a socio-emotional support for students. To be clear: it is your job to support students holistically, especially those who have baggage that can impede their learning. This entails the ability to build relationships, be culturally responsive, understand child and adolescent development, understand the dimensions of inequity, know and impart content in developmentally appropriate ways, be a content expert, and position yourself as a student mentor and guide. All of those components, and others lead to deeper learning, which is our collective goal as a district.  Some teachers are rocking out this holistic approach to teaching, all day, every day. Some teachers are natural student mentors. If that is you, I give you permission now to go eat some Cookies and Cream ice cream, read Us Weekly on your tablet, or bust out your Netflix and chill. If you are a novice teacher, or work with kids who are dissimilar to you culturally, racially, hail from a different socioeconomic background than you, or have experienced trauma, y’all might want to keep reading.

The baggage that many of our students bring to our classrooms every day includes visible and invisible factors that impact their experiences at school. Issues around race, gender, culture, socioeconomic status, and trauma impact how kids learn and behave. While I am not in the business of imparting educational tips and tricks, if you or a teacher you know is struggling with the “mentor/teacher” balance here are some things to ponder and perhaps act upon as you move forward in your thinking, planning, and preparation for next year.

6 Things Teachers can do to help Students Unpack their Baggage:

  1. Be on their side and on their case. What does that mean? Be there for your students. Be approachable, but have boundaries and high expectations that are scaffolded. Make sure that your language about the tasks and expectations in your classroom, your demeanor and body language, and verbal sentiment are congruent. Meaning, say what you mean, and mean what you say, and make sure that kids know you care. Kids schlepping around mounds of baggage know if you really care about them, and they can sniff out disingenuous adult a mile away. Be pleasantly persistent about their learning and progress. Wounded students need to know AND hear that you are not giving up on them.  As a College Access Resource Teacher, ALL the students are my students, but I find I spend most of my time harassing and cajoling Seniors. I get to know them really, really well. I learn and know their ACT scores, current grades, family situations, and teenaged drama. I let them know that I know what is going on in their world, and that I care about their successes, and want to help them work through their struggles. This past year I had a student named Dee. Dee came from a struggling background, wanted to go to college and play football, but struggled all year with History. Towards the end of the year, he found himself unsure if he was going to pass History. Daily, I would conduct “Senior Shakedowns on any 12th grader who might be in danger of not graduating on time. Dee was one of the kids on my daily docket. I would ask about his grades, how his college applications were going, and how his mother was. During each conversation, I would fold in some of John Saphier’s verbiage and thinking and it would sound something like this, “Dee, you know I care about what happens to you…this is important…you can do it…I am on your side, but dude, I have to be on your case because I am not going to stand by and watch you fail… so what are your next steps…?” And then I would coach him through next steps. Dee graduated, not because of me but because someone was on his side and on his case actively mentoring him. Articulating your expectations, your support for them as they flounder and experience success, and your desire to empower them is key as you mentor wounded students.
  2. Provide them opportunities to learn about you so you can be relatable to them. Building a relationship is a two-way street. Students need to know that you are a real person, not just a teacher. At the beginning of each year, sharing a bit about yourself with your students can break the ice. I would share goofy things like favorite food, colors, pictures of my pets. But I also shared things that really were important to me like my basic family story, my education, and some of my life experiences. They were always fascinated by my upbringing and experience in foster care, because in many ways they could relate. While there were not always similarities, my students and I find that there are many parallels that opened the door for authentic communication and thus opportunities to co-create a learning space inside our classroom.
  3. Talk to your students to understand their baggage. Some people are naturally gregarious (Read: the author is naturally gregarious.) and never meet a stranger. If you are not an extrovert or you got into teaching primarily because you love your content, you need to practice talking to your students. The easiest way to do this is to talk to them and ask them questions about who they are and what they are interested in. I had an aide, Rachel, two years ago who was super shy, but I could see there was more brewing under the surface. I knew her 9th and 10th grade years were rough. I asked Rachel questions about herself, school, her family, her extracurriculars, her aspirations. If I had not peppered her with questions about herself the first two weeks of school, I would not know anything about her. As time progressed I learned there were not many adults in her life that she trusted and she felt abandoned by her parents and she hated school. By the end of the year, Rachel found refuge in my office and it was clear she knew I was there for her because when she was having a bad day she would make sure she came by for a pep talk, even after she was no longer my aide. Kids want to share, because they need to feel special, and because it is cathartic to share. They have to have space to unload the baggage so they can go on to learn.
  4. Learn and know your students’ academic and non-cognitive data. As a college access teacher, before I meet with any kid I go on a fact-finding mission and mine their student data for anything that can provide an initial picture of who they are and what kind of learner they might be. This data includes but is not limited to academic data such as grades and test scores, to the non-cognitive data such as school enrollments and attendance. I Google map their address. I talk to athletic coaches, teachers, counselors, and parents/caregivers as I research my students. I do whatever I can learn about them and leverage that information when building a strengths-based approach. Tap into counselors, assistant principals, Family Resource Center personnel, security guards, attendance clerk, transition coordinators, athletic coaches, and behavior coaches. You can be sure that they know your wounded students best and they all know something a bit different about those kids. From there you can triangulate your student’s data to determine how to build a relationship and develop a personalized, strengths-based approach to supporting and empowering them.  
  5. Know the resources your school has at its disposal and seek them out. In the field of applied behavior analytics, there is a concept called Multi-tier Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is a system whereby all academic, behavioral, and socioemotional supports are connected, linked, and articulated. Essentially, it is a multi-layered grid of tiered, preemptive, preventative strategies and interventions that support a plethora of needs students might have. Under the MTSS umbrella is PBIS, RTI, and Trauma-informed practices fall, as well as social services, and mental health services. If you are unsure of what options your school might have, be sure to ask some of the administrative and student support folks identified in #4. If you find that your school does not have a framework of MTSS, start asking questions about why and how you and other teacher leaders and administrators can create these supports. Students slip through the cracks for non-academic reasons when we do not have structures like MTSS in place to support them. Asking questions of the staff who are not in classrooms are key.This requires teachers to be resourceful and be advocates for their students because it really does take a village to raise our kids. If you have questions about MTSS, talk to your PBIS Coach or counselor or do a Google Search for MTSS.
  6. Reflect on your practices and learn more about supporting students who are wounded or have baggage that impedes their learning. Be willing to ask and answer some metacognitive questions about your classroom practices. Are you creating a safe learning space for your students, and how might you know? How might you provide predictability and routine for your students and what does it look like, sound like, and feel like? Do you know what societal trends are impacting your students, and what ways? Are you up-to-date on current research on how your might use such research to support your students? How might you give kids opportunities to share, talk, and interact with you in authentic ways? How would they know you care about them holistically? How might you change how you impart that caring – are your words and actions congruent? Do you know about trauma-informed practices, and might you use them? Do you employ student voice to allow students to be their authentic selves, especially for students who are culturally, racially, and linguistically diverse than you? Are you forgiving of your students as well as yourself when expectations are not met? How might you be capitalizing on your student’s’ strengths as opposed to their deficits?

This coming school year is the beginning of my sixteenth year in education. My time as an educator has affirmed how arduous and complex this work is. It is difficult mediating relationship-building, cultural responsiveness, child and adolescent development, our current socio-political landscape of our community and schools as well as being well-versed in instructional strategies and content. I deeply believe that spending time getting to know kids as students, as children, and as humans goes a long way if we want to be successful in the business of teaching and learning.   As I reflect, I know that there are areas I need to grow in as I work with students. Many of the questions above I have asked or plan to ask myself as I refine my practices for my next group of students. Because all students are different, it is important that we each keep working on how to build unique, supportive relationships with them. By doing so we can help them cope with their baggage and empower their deeper learning.