Thinking back on my first few years as a teacher, I don’t think I was as good as I thought as I was. Sure, I was prepared and didn’t have issues with my administrators but, given what I know now, I made a mistake by not prioritizing relationships with kids.
Everyday I would come to school with my lesson plan, retrieve my copies. and get to work. I was always business. I would smile, but not too much. Talk to the kids for a few minutes, but not too long. I couldn’t have the kids thinking I was their friend. They had to know I was their teacher and I meant business. I didn’t feel like it was professional to extend myself too much. Besides, they were kids and I was an adult. I had to draw the boundary somewhere, right?
Then I made a teacher friend who happened to be the “really cool” teacher. You know, the one whose class everyone wants and gets assigned the tough kids and no one complains. The teacher to whom all the kids want to talk to. She knew what they did and what they were going to do. She knew about what they did outside of school and over the weekends. I would watch the way she talked and interacted as she spoke to them about their families, friendships and relationships. She also had this great ability to stay current. She knew what the kids listened to, what slang they used, and what was really important to them.
She knew which kids were having a bad day and why. She knew which students lived in a shelter, which students were experiencing tough domestic situations at home, which students were bullied, and who the bullies were. Ms. D rarely had a discipline issue in her class. When she sensed something was going to happen, she would use humor to defuse the situation. By knowing and understanding each of her students, she was better able to teach them.
Her relationships with students also wasn’t just one way. She shared with the kids the things she liked as well as stories about what it was like when she was in high school and they listened eagerly. Ms. D was still very much business and the kids knew that, but she was still cool. How was it possible to mix the two?
The simple answer is that she was just herself and she knew that by forming strong relationships with her students they would give her their best efforts. She understood that our students weren’t going to care about how much history she knew if they didn’t know Ms. D cared about them.
In my own educational experience, I never got the feeling it was “okay” to tell your teachers anything too personal or to have a “real” relationship with any of them. Yes, my teachers cared, but I never remember sharing a good laugh about something really silly. I don’t remember ever thinking that it was okay to have a friendship with a teacher. I never looked at them as anything other than my teachers. It was almost like they weren’t human to me. They were teachers and I was a student. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?
By watching my friend Ms. D, I learned that communicating to children through your actions teaches them that they are valued and cared for, and that this connection is crucial to building their self-confidence.