In my eleven years as an educator, both in the States and abroad, I have always viewed my relationships with students as an indicator of student achievement. I truly enjoy growing and fostering relationships with each child, and think of it as an integral part of my teaching practice. Additionally, I have noticed that when I focus on building strong relationships with my students, they are more eager to perform well in the classroom out of respect for the relationship they have built with me, as well as respecting the classroom as a place of academic growth. Students living with disabilities, whom I teach, often struggle with managing their emotions and actions, and the relationship special education teachers build with them over the course of a school year help them not only make significant gains in overall academic performance, but also social and emotional progress.
However, many teacher preparation programs do not offer any courses that instruct future teachers on the importance of relationship-building within the classroom. Programs that aim to train highly-qualified teachers often fail to give appropriate direction to incoming novice teachers, instead focusing only on theories that have no implication in the classroom. All too often I hear, especially among rookie teachers, that they have been told in their teacher preparation programs to be a “meanie until Halloweenie.” Therefore, when these teachers observe me in my classroom, they are shocked at the rapport I have with my students.
These prospective educators have not been taught that the time and energy I put into building relationships with my students creates a respectful and engaging learning environment, without having to be “mean until Halloween.” Excellent instruction is only part of the equation, and until teacher preparation programs understand that teachers-in-training must be taught the skills of relationship-building, those rookie teachers entering classrooms for the first time in September will all too often fail to effectively harness a classroom with anywhere from 30 to 34 students, especially when, in my case, roughly half of those students have unique social and emotional needs.
Students living with disabilities not only need healthy relationships with their teachers, but also need those teachers to be trained to help them cope with their specific disabilities. As a special education teacher I aim every day to meet those needs, all the while ensuring that the instruction I deliver is meeting the rigorous expectations my students deserve.
Recently a situation arose where one of my students was going through a difficult situation at home. While his behavior generally is hard to manage, the circumstances he was facing only aggravated him further, flustering his teachers. Due to the nature of my relationship with this young student, he was able to confide in me and, together with the school counselor, we gave him the time and space he needed to vent to us about what was going on at home. In addition, we were able to find resources for the family to help them overcome the challenges they were facing.
Had this relationship not been fostered from the beginning of the year, my student might not have opened up to me about his situation at home, and events might have spiraled out of control, leaving my student confused, angry, and unable to meet his academic demands. If we had not stopped to dig deeper into the root of his behavior, we might have merely reprimanded him instead of offering a safe space where he was able to express his anger and fears.
Later that month my students and I were discussing what the word “home” means to us. This student raised his hand and answered, “home is where we feel safe…this classroom is home to me.”
I recently received a very nice email from my principal thanking me for the great contributions to my classroom, and how much my efforts are appreciated, especially given the variety of difficulties that my students are overcoming this past year. While my years of teaching have given me the experience I need to tackle the everyday problems my students face, it is essential that teachers enter the classroom armed with the tools they will need to create a “home” for their students where they can grow and thrive, both academically and emotionally. This goal will require different emphases in teacher preparation programs.