Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is the 2016 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and she teaches high school English and creative writing. Lamb-Sinclair, who authors the www.beautifuljunkyard.com website, took a sabbatical during the 2015-16 school year and worked with the Kentucky Department of Education. She is also the founder and chief executive officer of Curio Learning, an educational technology company launching a platform for teacher professional development. And she has written several posts for this blog, including this one, titled, “Why white students need black teachers — by a white teacher.”
In this reflective piece, she looks at the mythologies that people carry with them — and why teachers have to help students change their negative myths to positive ones that build self-worth. She notes that schools sometimes create and perpetuate the negative myths about some students that damages their self-image, and it is the responsibility of teachers to help students create positive stories about themselves as learners.
By Ashley Lamb-Sinclair
My mom was barely 20 years old when I was born, and not in the best health. She is a smoker since early adolescence and smoked throughout her pregnancy with me (it was the 1980s, after all), so her labor was not a smooth one. In fact, it was an emergency. Her health quickly deteriorated, both of our heartbeats dropped dangerously low, and the nurses and doctors prepped my mom for a cesarean. My mom was young and had made some mistakes that haunted her throughout her pregnancy with me, so in the midst of the panic in the room, she lost herself in fear and regret. She was convinced that because of her mistakes, I would surely die. The logic was skewed, but anyone who is a parent knows the illogical trails our minds will walk when it comes to worrying about our kids.
While struggling with her own crashing health and her fear of what would happen to me, the room suddenly went silent. My mom told me it was like a silent movie; the nurses and doctors were running around, obviously yelling and panicking, but she heard nothing. Through the silence, she heard a voice that to this day she believes was the voice of God, which said to her, “I know you worry I will take her because of what you did, but I won’t. She is blessed and she will be okay.” The room came back, the panic died down, and the monitor on my heart beeped in a steady rhythm again.
I don’t know how much I believe this myth that has underscored my entire life. However, there is no convincing my mother that this did not happen. She believes it, and when I was young, I was told over and over that I was blessed, I was special. I was told of my own invaluable worth in a low-income household with parents who had never gone to college. No one ever questioned that I would go to college and be successful. My mother knew it to be true and treated me as such. I remember being on the school bus when one kid looked me in the face and told me I was ugly, to which I replied, “No I’m not. My mama says I’m beautiful.” I made deals with my dad that when I grew up and became a famous writer, I would give him half of what I made. We signed a contract and everything. My family’s belief in my value cultivated my own self worth and my own beliefs about who I would become.
But I have a little brother whose story is drastically different from mine. He has struggled with addiction since he was a teenager. He has been in and out of jail for stealing and for drugs. My brother got a different message and developed a very different belief system. I remember him saying to me, “I’m just as smart as you, but I’m lazy.”
His mythology was that my mother, who was an only child and told by doctors after my harrowing birth that she should never try to have more children, didn’t want me to be an only child like she was and got pregnant anyway. My brother’s existence has always been inextricably linked to mine, so he developed certain defenses in order to preserve his own self worth. He rebelled and took an opposite path.
I tell these mythologies not to indulge, but because I am a teacher and I deal quite a bit in beliefs and the self-worth of young people.
Each year begins with a mandatory, school-wide video or assembly related to suicide prevention. Or with the inevitable email from a parent worried about his or her child starting school after a summer struggling with an eating disorder or depression. And I have found myself on the brink of tears in meetings about students who need intervention because they are tenth graders reading at a fourth-grade level. By the time they are teenagers, students often walk around carrying their own mythologies, for better or worse, and those stories can determine who they become.
Even worse is when we impose mythologies onto students. For my entire career, I have fought battles for struggling readers inside and outside the classroom. In multiple schools, I have found myself in meetings defending these students’ rights to a dignified approach to their literacy growth. I have seen 16-year-old young men forced to sit in the hallway and read with a reading coach in order to test his fluency, a degrading and demeaning experience for a nearly grown man, not to mention ineffective and inappropriate developmentally.
I have seen entire school schedules reconfigured around remedial reading classes for high school students who struggle with basic reading comprehension, forcing them to take low-level reading courses multiple times a day while taking them out of the electives that bring them joy and self worth. And I have taught in a middle school where the refrain, “These kids can’t read,” became the school’s secret motto and a self-fulfilling prophecy when the school was finally closed down.
I have spent more than a decade bearing witness to the slow death a love of learning dies in young adolescents as they progress through school, and I have seen what this tragic loss means to students whose self-worth is already dangerously volatile.
Students can have negative mythologies of who they are as learners that are either developed or perpetuated by schools. These mythologies do not leave them when they leave school and they can determine whether they become successful, fulfilled adults, or lost, struggling ones.
Malala Yousafzai also carried a belief system about who she was and what she was capable of doing. Malala’s father inspired her from birth to stand up for her beliefs, even though she was a girl and her culture — especially males like her father — heavily restricted a woman’s right to speak up. Her father encouraged her to blog about her experiences living as an oppressed girl in Pakistan, although he knew it could cost her her life.
Malala’s blog grew in popularity, and eventually her story was no longer a secret. The more the Taliban tried to silence her, the more she spoke up and kept speaking until the present day, even after being shot in the head and living to tell the story. Malala’s story has been told the world over, but what is notable is the unending belief Malala’s father instilled within her. He gave Malala a noble place to start by telling, showing, and pushing her to turn the myth he created for her into a reality.
Students do not all come to school with such positive mythology. Sometimes the myths they carry are sad or angry or shameful ones, and sometimes these negative beliefs are fueled when schools focus on students’ challenges, rather than their strengths. How many Malalas have sat in a remedial class or been pulled out into the hallway because someone along the way told them a misleading myth and the student believed it so much that it became truth?
As a teacher, I am often haunted by this possibility. We have power as educators and must use it responsibly. Many of our students don’t feel a sense of belonging or carry positive stories about themselves, and many educators work day in and day out to remedy it. Organizations such as Sevenzo are working to find these educators who know how to help students feel a positive sense of belonging and shine a light on their work, so other schools can adopt their practices. In telling the stories of educators who give students a stronger sense of belief in themselves, we give more opportunities for students to craft their own positive stories.
I know the power of belief and the power of narrative. I have lived it. And I know the possibilities that could open up for some students if they are told a different story and given a different myth to believe. I am lucky that I had parents and educators who did this for me, otherwise, my path might have been very different. I have seen students on that path, and I see how they feel when negative myths about them perpetuate.
But what I really love to see is when that myth starts to change into a positive sense of belonging and a path that will lead to a better one than the path they have been walking.