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TFA 25th Anniversary Speaker Spotlight: Wisdom Amouzou
In our latest 25th Anniversary Summit Speaker Spotlight, Wisdom Amouzou (Colorado ’13), a 2015 Sue Lehmann Award Winner, shares how a little empathy can allow you to truly bond with your students.
When presented the opportunity during the first semester to teach my students a lesson on character, I chose to focus on empathy, defined as the ability to understand or share the feelings of another. The purpose of this lesson was to deepen and solidify the bond between teacher and student.
At the time, I taught seventh grade Pre-Algebra and struggled to connect with my students on a human level beyond numbers and equations. To model the process of owning your truth through storytelling, I shared with my students a narrative of pain and resilience. It was a story, an ugly truth, that I had never told anyone prior.
I laid down the same four images below on the overhead for all four of my classes and asked the students to identify the noticeable pattern. The bottom-right picture was taken when I was 9 years old, and the rest of the images show my subsequent years through middle school.
Without fail, a few students in each class correctly identified that what I lost throughout middle school my smile. The reason was a bicycle accident, when my front tooth cushioned my fall on the concrete, causing my tooth to break in half. Eventually, the other half of my now-decayed adult tooth was surgically removed, leaving a permanent hole in the front of my mouth. As an already sensitive young boy, this crushed much hope I had of building a strong sense of self-esteem and self-confidence.
The most painful part of the story wasn’t the fact that I spent the next nine years of my life missing my front tooth. It wasn’t even all the teasing or rejections throughout schooling. Instead, it was during my freshman year of college, when a classmate was recounting a sports story from high school and mentioned having his teeth knocked out during a hockey match.
In three days, his smile was fixed and he was back on the ice. His parents had excellent health care coverage. They could afford the expensive co-pay from the dentist visit, the 3-D X-ray to map the structure of the bones in his gums, the after-hours visit to an orthodontist to ensure alignment, and the various fees associated with the surgical implant of his new tooth. My encounter with this college classmate was a moment of “conscientization.” It made visible societal structures that were previously invisible in my disadvantaged position.
I felt inferior. Ugly. Angry. Poor. Weak.
It was at this point in the story that I removed my fake tooth and smiled in front of my students, gap and all. There were mixed reactions. Some gasped quite dramatically. Most looked away and couldn’t make eye contact. A few began crying at the sight of the gap, which was “re-traumatizing” in its own right. I felt the frustration of inequity and the pain of the multiple attempts my parents made at saving for a fake tooth they could never afford. I felt the anguish of the multiple visits to Medicaid offices to make a case for federal aid to cover the operation. I felt the agony of social misery.
I cried. I cried in Periods 1, 2, 3, and 4. I cried again when I got home, that same night in the shower, and again when going to sleep. The tears I suppressed when I was 9, 10, 11, and 12 years old flowed copiously down my cheeks. I owned a excruciating truth I had previously carried alone and felt relief in the 110 shoulders I could now lean on. It was a healing moment I had never experienced before. In seeking to empower my students, I empowered myself. In seeking to teach my students to love, I learned first to love myself. It was a powerful moment for teacher and student, one that we'll never forget. It was truly the moment I bonded with the most powerful group of students I might ever teach.
Immediately following the story, I asked my students to finish this sentence starter: “Something most people don’t know about me is _____.” In sharing our stories, we found a communion of comfort in each other. As I left the school building that day and for the rest of the year, I could not shake the feeling of having experienced a moment greater than myself. It’s a feeling I could never and still cannot clearly describe: powerful, bonding, healing, liberating, empowering, loving, and most fervently, humanizing.
Today, Wisdom is a Teaching Fellow at the African Leadership Academy, which seeks to enable lasting peace and prosperity in Africa by developing and connecting future leaders from every country on the continent. Learn more about Wisdom's current Empathy Project, or watch a video featuring his work from our partner Teach For All.
Don’t miss the opportunity to hear from Wisdom and many other inspiring leaders at Teach For America’s 25th Anniversary Summit. Register today!
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