Identity Impacts Education, and Vice Versa

Education and IdentityThere’s a growing body of scholarship around how students’ social identities impact their educational experiences, but it’s so important to consider how education affects their identities as well. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible that identity and education interact with each other as a cycle, or even a series of them, in which identity and our experiences in education feed into each other in different and overlapping ways. For some students and teachers, that cycle plays out every day and in some unexpected (and challenging) ways.

I have a friend who is a TA for undergraduate history classes, and she recently posted a frustrated message on social media about how many of her students come to her and argue when the receive an A-. Some even go so far as to beg, saying that they’ll do anything to bump their grade up to an A. My friend saw this as a sign of entitlement, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But that’s not the only thing going on here.

Some people commented on that post, admitting that they used to be exactly like those students. They had fought tooth and nail for the best grades possible because those A’s were synonymous with their identity not just as students but as people. Their GPA’s were part of who they were. And to be honest with you, I used to be one of those jittery undergrads, too.

In this case, those students’ earlier achievements solidified into an identity of achievement. At the same time, it’s probable that most of those students began with social identities that gave them a leg up in educational achievement in the first place. The combination of social and personal expectations can be terrifying for such students.

Another friend who came from a complicated and tumultuous upbringing vented to me after her first class session for an intergroup dialogue course. Students were asked to discuss their identities and the stereotypes that went along with them. One of her classmates was Asian-American and confided that throughout her education people had taken one look at her and assumed that she was smart. My friend was really ruffled by that, thinking something like, “Why does this woman think her life has been hard because people projected something positive onto her? My life has been a lot harder than hers.”

I’m not sure how, but I managed to say some wise points in response. First of all, even stereotyping someone as having a positive trait is detrimental. No one deserves to be put in a box at first glance. And what if you had to go through life feeling like you couldn’t make a mistake? I can’t imagine dealing with the fear of not living up to people’s expectations. That could be excruciatingly stressful. Perhaps the most important thing I reminded her of is the fact that someone’s struggle in no way lessons that of someone else. By the time we reach adulthood, we all have a lot of educational baggage. My friend is as enlightened and receptive as they come, and she really took my assessment of the situation to heart.

Of course, there are many, many people on the opposite end of the achievement spectrum. Their identities in many ways are impacted by their lack of educational achievement. As someone who has worked in adult education, I’ve seen the gamut of reasons why some people aren’t successful in school. I’ve taught people who told me that their parents pushed them too hard. Others have told me that their parents didn’t push them hard enough. I worked with a colleague who dropped out of school in 4th grade and now helps run a job readiness program for parolees. I’ve taught a woman and her son in the same GED class.

The most common thread with those students, however, was being told that they were stupid or lazy or worse when they couldn’t find a way to get through school. A lot of them heard that from their teachers. Although learning disabilities and different learning styles weren’t well-understood when many of those students were children, directing that sort of language at a struggling learner is unthinkable. But it happened. At some point, some of my students started to believe those things were true and wrote themselves off just as much as everyone around them did. I’m grateful that they found their way to my classroom, overcoming their fears of further rejection and failure. It was an opportunity to prove to everyone, including themselves, that their past educational struggles didn’t have to define who they were.

Perhaps the real issue here is not whether certain identities predispose us to a particular level of academic achievement. Perhaps what we should really be focusing on is how the stereotypes  surrounding those identities impede students from reaching their potential. When students internalize the message that they must do well in school or that they can’t do well in school, so much of their fate is taken out of their hands. School isn’t actually about grades or expectations. It’s about giving students the tools they need in order to make informed decisions for themselves. Educators need to work to ensure that identities–and the stereotypes associated with them–aren’t a barrier to students becoming fulfilled adults.



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