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One Student and his Silence in the Classroom

alesnick's picture

LaKesha Preston-Roberts


A student talks about her experience in tutoring algebra to a freshman in high school.

One Student and his Silence in the Classroom

 (Student)        “What I need a tutor for? I already know this stuff. Why can’t I just go sit in class?”

(Teacher)         “Because you don’t know the stuff. She is waiting for you in there, so go have a seat.”

(Student)         “Man!”

After student walks into classroom and notices me waiting for him, he has a seat next to me.

(Student)         “Are you getting paid to do this?”

(Mentor)          “No, it’s something I do in addition to one of the courses I’m taking in college.”

(Student)         “And you don’t get paid?”

(Mentor)          “No, not at all.”

(Student)         “You don’t have anything better to do, then come up here to tutor?”

(Mentor)          “It’s a requirement for one of my courses, so I make time to come out here and tutor. I also enjoy math and tutoring.”

(Student)         “Wow (sarcastically)!”


I am working at a public special admit high school. I was placed in a ninth grade algebra classroom. Once a week, I sit in on three periods and if there is a student who needs extra help on the material, I pull them out of the classroom to work one-on-one. Above is the first interaction I had with Kadeem (a pseudonym), one of the students I was asked to tutor. While I waited in a separate classroom for this student, I was greeted with the above conversation. The conversation that the student was having with his teacher made me pretty nervous. I did not know what kind of attitude to expect from this student. Would he be angry and resent me for having him pulled out of class? Would he ignore me and not want to do the work? Would I not be able to go over all the material that the teacher asked me to go over? His questions startled me even more because I felt as if he thought that there was no point in my being there to tutor him. I began to think that he was just shocked that someone was taking the time to help him with his school work. When I asked him why he felt that I could not just want to help him with his math and not need an incentive, he replied, “My teacher doesn’t even care so why should you? I sit in the back of my classroom and do nothing during the period.” This really made me worry about the student and how his lack of communication with the teacher was hurting his learning in the classroom. If teachers do not pay attention to their students and take an interest in each and every one of their educations, they run the risk of losing the students’ interests in school. The teacher has to get to know their students and their individual needs in the classroom so that they know what each student needs and how to address their different learning styles in the classroom. The lack of communication between Kadeem and his teacher has caused Kadeem to develop some resentment in his class and to sit in the back of the class and not participate. After hearing his thoughts on his teacher, I wanted to make sure that while I was going over the material I allowed him to share any frustrations that he had. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that we were getting work done and not just using the time to talk. I was afraid that not allowing him to share his frustrations may cause him to think of me as another one of his teachers and possibly begin to resent me.

“Within the modern tradition, speed and productivity are so customarily associated that it is easy to assume a necessary connection between them…It is not surprising that we associate intelligence, the very ability to learn, with speed. Teachers want to ‘get through the material’ quickly…” (Herman and Mandell 70-71)


These days, everything is happening so fast, especially in the classroom. Teachers have so much pressure to prepare students for tests that they do not have time to take a “break” to get to know their students. For some students this can be damaging because they don’t feel like the teacher is interested in their education. I wanted Kadeem to know that I was there to help him academically but also listen to any problems that he was having in the classroom.

“Wait, I am right!”

            As Kadeem and I continued to work on the material and go over practice problems so that he could get comfortable with the new rules he was learning, I noticed that he had a lot of problems with some of the basic math that we came across (addition, subtraction and multiplication). I wanted to help him, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that I did not make him feel uncomfortable or incapable of solving some of the basic problems himself. When he would give me an answer that was wrong, I would ask him the question over so that he would have time to think instead of just giving him the answer. He kept telling me that he was right but I continued to re-ask him the question and give him time to think. I thought that this was very important because I wanted him to know that he was incorrect but I did not want to embarrass him by continuing to give him the answers. From previous experience working with the Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI) at Bryn Mawr College, I learned the importance of being patient and mindful of the feelings of the people that we are working with. For instance, working with TLI I had the chance to tutor staff members basic computing skills. I had to be cautious of the fact that a lot of the staff members did not have much experience using computers and make sure not to make them feel uncomfortable or belittle them. This was the same for Kadeem in that while I knew that some of the basic math we went over should have came easy for him; he may have not had a strong basis with the basic material. This is another way that students begin to resent teachers and learning in the classroom because they are afraid to make mistakes on stuff that they “should” know and do not want to be criticized by their peers. At times this can be a difficult task for most tutors/mentors because they are not around long enough to actually assess how much a student knows in a certain subject, but that is why it is always important to remember to not assume how much the student knows.


“What’s the point? Even if I get an education, I will still be a black guy.”

            Kadeem started to get frustrated as the material we were learning began to get a little harder. He continued to work on the problems but grew irritated when he kept making small mistakes. After pushing him to do a few more problems, I knew that it was time to take a break so that he did not grow irritated to the point where he did not want to work anymore. When we stopped, he threw his pencil down and told me that math was pointless and that there was no point in the subject or any of the subjects he was taking in school. He explained to me that he believed the subjects were pointless because he did not feel like he would have a need for them in the future. He expressed some of his interests in possible careers, many of which were in the entertainment business. When I told him that a lot of the careers still required him to have some sort of knowledge in some of his subjects, he quickly responded, “That’s what an agent is for.” I continued to explain that he will always need a backup plan and having an education is very important. He then offered the response, “Or I could just be a dope boy (selling drugs in the streets). That’s fast and easy money.” Trying to explain the importance of an education to a student who had an answer for everything was very difficult, but I continued to converse with him about the topic. I talked to him about how dangerous selling drugs could be in addition to how illegal it was. Before I could even go into more detail, he interrupted me to say:

“I know bein’ a dope boy is bad. I don’t wanna end up dead but it’s just easy money. I know that I need to get an education. I know that it’s the right thing to do but I don’t see the point if I’m still going to be Black. I am always going to be seen as a Black guy. I still live in a world that think Black people are not smart enough and will never be as good as White people. I’m still going to be nothing.”


When I heard this, I did not know how to respond at first.  We had been discussing the importance of education but we were doing it in a laughing manner and it was a really “light” conversation and then out of nowhere he asks this really “heavy” question and I panic with the idea of not being able to answer his question properly. After the question settled and I was able to understand his point of view and how troubled he felt about being black in a white dominated society, I realized that there was only one real answer at the time.

“Even more reason for you to stay in school. There are so many stereotypes out there about young Black men dropping out of school and selling drugs in the street instead of being in school. You hear about young Black men being killed in the streets every day. So it makes sense to stay in school and get an education. Stay out of the streets and in the books and help to change the way other people look at Black people.”


While he said that he understood my point and agreed, I could still see his continued frustration. We were having a very deep conversation and although we had work that we should have been doing, I think that it was very useful for him to express some of his frustration around his education.  It is important that students feel that they have someone that they can talk to other than their parents especially when they do not feel like they can turn to their teachers or faculty members at their school. At the end of the day, I still felt like we accomplished a lot because we got work done and we worked through some of the frustrations that may keep him from wanting to take advantage of the learning in his classroom.

Now what?

This meeting, while it was the first, made me very optimistic about our future meetings. I feel that in our one meeting we were able to “break down” a lot of the barriers that he was facing. I believe that we were able to have to this relationship and get through some of these barriers because we shared the same race and at times he felt that I would be able to understand where he was coming from. On more than one occasion he made statements like, “You know what I’m talking about” and “I know you’ve seen it happen before.” He made comments as if I had seen of heard of some of the experiences he shared with me and in most cases he was right. I have lots of black males in my family and lots of black male friends who have expressed similar concerns as Kadeem and I feel that helped me when trying to find ways to respond to his comments. The one question that I feel that I still struggle with is, “How do you push a student to want to learn when he thinks that all odds are against him/her?” I feel that I may have made some progress with this student but there are a lot of students in the same situation as Kadeem who do not always have someone that they feel comfortable talking with. With that said, I still do not know how I was able to do some of the things that I did. When he first walked into the classroom, I thought that this student was going to hate me and had no interest working with me. I was hoping that we would just get through the work that the teacher asked me to go over and then I would leave. Even when he asked me questions, I was lost for words but then they just came to me. I was in no way prepared for the meeting that we had but everything worked out. I do not think that mentoring a student is something that you can actually learn; I think that it is something that you pick up on and comes with practice. Every student is different and has his/her own story. “While the vast majority of tutors and school personnel are caring and well intentioned, not all of them are the allies they could be for the young people and families they serve…Single strategies and ‘one size fits all’ approaches have not and will not work” (Woo 4). More time needs to be devoted to each individual student so they can see and know the importance of their own education and the promise of their own future!

Works Cited

Field Notes (3.31.09)

Herman, Lee, and Alan Mandell. From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and practice, dialogue and life in adult education. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Woo, Ginlin. "Tutors Can Be Allies: Putting Allyship at the Top of Your Agenda for Students and Families." Spring 1999 1-10. 25 Jan 2009.



Ambrosia Johnson's picture

Response for Class 3/28

This was very interesting to read because I think I am going to have a similar experience at my field placement. Even though I have only been there once, I can already see that there are students who need extra help but aren't receiving it. I can also see that some of the students feel that their teacher doesn't have their best interest at heart. Sitting down and helping the students one-on-one seemed like something that they were not accustomed to. The students I worked with enjoyed it, but at the same time they were taken aback. I was also asked who I was and why I was there on many occasions. When I explained that I had to come for my own class in college and that I was there to merely "hang out" and help with certain things, they seemed to be a little more at ease.

I learned some teaching and tutoring techniques from this article as well. During my first visit, I found myself giving out a lot of answers in my attempt to try to not make the child look "stupid". I learned different techniques of getting around giving out the answers directly all the time. I enjoyed reading about this experience and I'm anxious to see how it will compare and contrast with the remainder of my visits at my field placement!

Serendip Visitor's picture

Re: Response for Class 3/28

If I were in your situation I think I would be intimidated too. I guess under these circumstance presented by the author it's a matter of overcoming stereotype threat. Even if the the student is from a school with a pre-dominantly African-American student body population it is important to ensure that the students realize that skin color is not an obstacle--and that in fact by educating themselves they empower themselves and in turn help break down this social construct of racism.
I see how it is difficult when you feel like the teacher is just trying to get by/ get through class and get through the lessons in time for testing. I've seen this especially in school that have periodic assessments and the teacher doesn't whole-heartedly try and teach the content.

Faith Chung's picture

One Size Doesn't Fit All

I loved the narration of this experience, and agree that individual students need to have more time devoted to them. However, sometimes classrooms are so large that it's difficult to pay attention to each student. How can teachers engage students, even in this environment? In addition, if the narrator were not African American, would things have turned out differently? Can tutors of different races be prepared to answer similar questions?

I'm glad Kadeem had the chance to work one on one with a tutor - it seems that he benefitted greatly, and had the opportunity to voice some of his thoughts. Hopefully this will allow him to understand his world more, and give him the chance to think about "beating the odds." And who knows? Maybe this tutoring session has broadened his ways of thinking and consequently, empowered him.

Sarah Jenness's picture

Racial Differences

I am currently questioning what it means to be a white person in a classroom of majority African American students. In my placement we are discussing how African American teenagers are portrayed by the media, and I'm constantly impressed with what the students are saying, but not quite sure how to react. What does it mean to be a white and agree with what my students are saying? At the end of the day I can agree with them, but I am not exposed to the same forms of oppression. I think as a white person dealing with serious topics like the ones Kadeem discussed, and the issues being discussed at my placement it's important to really reflect why you are interested in having these conversations and what you hope to get out of it.

In the paper the student refers her response about staying to school to disprove the stereotype as the only right answer. I question whether that is really the only answer. I believe there must have been other responses, but cannot personally think of something better to say.

Katie Zeigler's picture

I think Faith's point about

I think Faith's point about the race of the narrator in this situation is really important; if I had been in this tutor's position, as a white caucasian female, I don't know if anything I could have said would have made him feel differently about his situation. Even if I had said that I didn't believe in those stereotypes on black males, I'm not sure if he would have trusted me.

I also thought this essay brought up the definition of agency in terms of the temporal aspect. Although Kadeem was able to project himself into the future and decide what he needed to do in the present to make those things come to fruition, his hopes for the future weren't exactly what the tutor or teacher intended. The fact that this student had the chance to discuss these feelings with the tutor, someone who wouldn't judge him, is great and hopefully he will change his mind.