Treating Students with Dignity

This past August I had the pleasure of attending some professional development activities organized and presented by educators within the Central Falls, Rhode Island school district. One workshop was being presented by David Upegui, a science teacher whom I knew from my days consulting in the district years ago.

David is a big thinker with a huge heart, always active doing things for young people and the community, see link. He’s well-known in the state, see link and I wanted to make sure I took the opportunity to see what he was up to, what he was saying of late.

His workshop was full of great ideas and his unique provocations. It reminded me of how much work we have to do to nourish the spirit of young people. And how important it is, each and every day, to remember the powerful role we have as educators in treating students with dignity. I asked David to recap his workshop in this following essay.

 Larry Myatt
Education Resources Consortium


David Upegui

David Upegui

It so happened that I grew up and went to school in the most economically disadvantaged city in Rhode Island. Even more than I realized at the time, I was in dire need of guidance, support, academic discipline and most importantly, a sense that I mattered, that I had a future. I was among the few and the fortunate to find that one special teacher, one that understood how that idea of agency would determine my future.

Now, as a teacher in my very same alma mater, I see it as my turn. I work as diligently as I can with a new generation of students, trying to provide for them that same sense of agency that freed me from economic -and intellectual- poverty. I had left my job as a researcher at an Ivy League university in hopes of igniting minds, in that very same place I had once sat as a student.

My son was born with an extra chromosome in each of his cells. Life with and learning from a young person with Down Syndrome is not what I had expected when I became a parent, but my son has taught me more than I learned in any class. My work became making sure that he would be treated fairly, with equanimity, and that he would have positive school experiences. It reminded me in the most powerful way of the power of each human being, and the fundamental belief that ALL children can and should learn. That’s what drives my teaching now.

So how do we do our best as educators, every day, to ensure that all our students are empowered and treated with that kind of dignity? Here is a short list of things I try to do that have shown positive results for my students --simple but important things—some having to do with the environment in my classroom and others more specially about my content teaching.

I call students by their last name. As simple as this may sound, this enables all of us to address each other with respect. When some students first hear me say “Ms. Rodriguez” or “Mr. Hernandez”, they are confused – it’s new to them. But I tell them that I try to look beyond their current status, that I see them as significant right now, that they will become even more important as they grow in our community.

I greet all students as they come in to the classroom. As an American-Latino, salutations and recognition of the other person were of importance growing up in my household. It may seem like a small gesture, but a smile and a hardy hello can have a profound impact. Even though I teach students that are in their final years of high school, I still begin each class with a “good morning/afternoon” and I expect the whole class to repeat it – it has become our custom. 

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Being prepared with lesson plans and materials. This may seem like a no-brainer, but one of the simplest ways to show respect to the students is by being prepared for class. When we are prepared we send subtle messages that let our students know that we are thinking about them outside of class. When we are not, that resonates as “he doesn’t take us seriously”.

Discuss the “rules” for all (including teacher). The rules that I have settled on are very simple: be prepared, be present and be respectful. They apply to everyone in the room, including me (and this is stated). It’s our way of agreeing on how we can be at our best with each other as we learn.

Introduce and value student questions. As a way to demonstrate the importance of questioning, I try to acknowledge and reward “good” questions. I have to make time for them, to go with the moment of curiosity. Over time students begin to notice the significance of questions and provide each other with encouragement.

Play music. This may seem trivial, but music can have a great effect on the culture of the classroom. I select playlists that not only have baroque musicians (studies have demonstrated the effect of this type of music on learning) but also include music that represent the wide variety of background my students bring. For example, I may play Sara Tavares or Mayra Andrade (both Cape Verdean), or Carlos Vives and Pedrito Fernandez (Latinos) and follow that with Air Supply, Olafur Arnalds, and Bach.

Regular communications. Some of these exchanges may be in-person or email, and regardless of method, communicating with students about their work, their academic performance, their strengths/weaknesses, dreams and plans, enables students to feel valued and important.

Explicit democratic voicing. I tell my students not to believe anything and everything that people say (even me!), unless evidence and data are provided. In other words, I want my students learn to be skeptical of “beliefs” and begin to recognize that their voice and opinions matter.

Bring in outsiders to the classroom/bring the classroom outside. Our classroom has many visitors each year. Any given week may include visits from college professors, nurses/physicians, graduates of the school, engineers, a swami (to teach the physiological effects of meditation on the body), or scientists. When visitors spend time with my students, everyone wins. My students begin to recognize that there is a larger world that wants them to succeed. And the visitors are inspired by the potential my students hold. Also, I try to take my students out of the classroom as much as possible – even it is just around the block – they are part of a greater community.

Storytelling/circle time. As unusual as this sounds, I hold “circle time” with my seniors in high school. I stop the action and call my students to bring up their lab stools and sit around a circle so we can all see each other. This works for many reasons including the fact that storytelling is the oldest form of communication and education (as well as being able to see who has their cell phone out). The stories I tell may include specific stories about science like the stories of Rosalyn Franklin, Lynn Margulis, Michael Faraday or Alhazen; stories which speak about perseverance, overcoming obstacles and using curiosity as an empowerment tool. Other stories may be my personal experiences or just about inspiring people such as Wilma Rudolph or Michael Jordan. Regardless, stories connect us as humans.

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Specific lessons that address liberation. A powerful examples is what we call “race”. I introduce the science underlying that notion. Skin coloration has historically been used to segregate and discriminate people, but what if we take a look at the data of ultra-violet radiation (UVB) and human skin pigmentation patterns? In this light, students begin to see that skin coloration is based on where our closets ancestors lived: the closer to the equator, the more skin pigmentation they had (as a natural protection from damaging sun rays). Once students appreciate that natural variation, they can begin to question why skin pigmentation was erroneously connected to human capacity. My students leave my class knowing that we are in fact only one human species (otherwise we could not successfully breed and have viable offspring). Undoubtedly, there are tons of lessons in all content areas that can be developed, delivered and shared with our students – we just need to consider them as what they truly are: the future stewards of the earth.

What we do as educators is never trivial. In front of us each day are the future problem-solvers of the world and it is up to us to enable them to recognize their great potential. We have more power than we recognize, and we are either part of the problem or the solution.