Landon Smith talks creating the teacher-student relationship college students need

“You need somebody who’s going to be really high touch because a lot of the time folks like to struggle in silence,” Smith said. 

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Landon Smith

Alana Marcelino doesn’t remember the name of the book that her former professor Landon Smith recommended to her — but what she learned from it, she said, “literally changed her life.”

Alana Marcelino never thought she’d find classwork ready to reflect her life experiences as a third generation Philipino American after growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood until taking Landon Smith’s METRO class her freshman year at San Francisco State University and picking up the required text.

As a BECA (Broadcast and Electronic Communication) major Alana now finds herself reflecting on the Philipino American experience and how American media has influence reaching the Philippines. 

Alana said this effect manifests itself in the way Philipino people come to the United States hating themselves and their culture because America establishes a very specific beauty standard and way of living that goes against most things these individuals grew up learning at home.

It was a concept she wasn’t aware of before coming into contact with that piece of paper. It made her look at her life and family in a way that completely altered her perceptions of American life.

“For him to assign the article not knowing how important it could be to someone like me; it was really significant and [I’ll always remember that],” Alana said.

Landon Smith, a former SFSU METRO faculty member, has successfully cultivated professor-student relationships using the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he centers his classrooms around deconstructing the power imbalance and bringing forward the individual needs of the student.

METRO, a program at SF State that describes itself as “a learning community with personalized in-class academic support, advising and tutoring,” enabled Smith to teach in a way that addressed a variety of minority experiences, which some students say is necessary to ease the college experience.

Rose Carmona, a program faculty member said the program is specifically for, “first generation underrepresented and or low income students to help them transition from high school to college. We focus on community building and infusing social justice into our curriculum.”

Mark Bautista, a current METRO faculty member and close friend to Smith said his classroom embodies the problem-posing pedagogy theory proposed by Paolo Freire in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 

Smith has created a teaching style based on the theory proposed by Paolo Freire, meaning that in order for the oppressed to regain humanity, the oppressed are to be led by others who have the same experiences. In this way their shared knowledge can “free” them from systems of oppression. 

He said the most effective way of teaching students is to think of teaching as a pure form of dialogue, growth and intellectual exchanges where everyone’s intent is supposed to be the same and being able to facilitate that has been the best part.

Smith believes not imposing himself on his students is the most effective way to cultivate teacher-student relationships and he sees this through the same way he views parenting. He has put into practice the concept of knowing your children come from you but are not yours, which allows him to develop genuine mentorships rather than creating a power disparity between himself and the students.

“I don’t walk into the space saying I know everything… There are a lot of things that folks can teach me,” Smith said.

Emily Navarro, a former METRO student that took Smith’s class, said that many students weren’t aware that they were experiencing gentrification and suffering at the expense of worldwide capitalism until they got to college, and having Smith break it down for her made it all the more easy to understand.

“It was great because you don’t see [professors of color] that often… and it’s not like [white professors] can relate to that. They belittle you and Landon never did that,” Navarro said. “That is what really resonated with me.”

Smith said one of the better success stories he had was of a student who struggled for a very long time to find what they wanted to do in college. 

In the few months they knew each other, the student was finally able to pick psychology as a major and even decided they were going to move on to get a PhD to achieve a career in counseling and psychology as a way to help others and in return help themselves.

To Smith, this is an example of a greater success story —being able to see people that struggle with having confidence in themselves get to that point is something not many people can do and is a process that takes much longer than most.

Smith said that teaching at METRO showed him that programs like that were necessary to help students stay and feel belonging in higher education institutions. 

“You need somebody who’s going to be really high touch because a lot of the time folks like to struggle in silence,” Smith said. 

Now as Smith is on track for tenure at Chabot College, in addition to teaching his regular classes, he is also involved in the RISE program, which is a transitioning program for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Eric Gentry, program coordinator for RISE said, “I [find the focus on] planning, mass incarceration and prison abolishment to [be] extremely important, especially working with our student population [and] being formerly incarcerated myself.”

Smith is the professor that educates students in the program about things all of them have experienced like prison overcrowding and ending the criminal justice system. All topics that not many professors have the knowledge of or cover in regular classroom curriculum, Gentry said.

But Smith wasn’t always so sure he wanted to continue on to get his masters. He said he was incredibly discouraged from taking on a higher education during his time at the University of Michigan— the biggest problem being the lack of guidance.

After a trip to London, Smith decided he would go back to get his masters and would attend Mills College instead. This time, the smaller classrooms allowed for more guidance as the professors knew their students more personally and were able to create relationships with their students.

The change of classroom environment made Smith realize what he had been missing at UM and drove him to think about what he wanted to represent as a future educator. 

In 2018, the opportunity of a tenure track position opened at Chabot College and Smith knew he wanted to take the position despite how much he loved working with the METRO program and students.

“I loved that experience and it was my ideal position, right? But I think other places need to kind of look at how it is that they can care for students genuinely in the way that we were able to Metro,” Smith said.

On one hand he would be leaving students he had created strong bonds with, but on the other hand he now has more creative freedom over what he wants to teach in his classroom and how he executes the curriculum. Smith hopes to bring that METRO structure into his future.

“As a person of color here in the Bay Area…  I know that he has a lot that he can provide and show guidance to the next generation of educators who follow us. So [I see his future to be] leadership, I see him steady stepping up in leadership [as his] career continues,” Bautista said.

By Karla O

Karla Orellana is a Creative Writing major and Journalism minor at San Francisco State University

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