Teaching Relationally

ASSIGNMENT: While there are a number of factors that influence the development of character in our students, having a positive, supportive, well modeled relationship with a teacher can be one of the most powerful game changers. However, in a time when class sizes are getting bigger and educator responsibilities take longer than there are hours in the workday, relationships that were built naturally in the past are now pushed aside as a result of trying to fit everything in and get it all done. In an attempt to stay on top of it all, we sometimes become all business. In the forum below, share 3 techniques/strategies with your classmates that educators can use to build positive relationships with individual students. These can be strategies you have researched or from your own experience.

Coach and Moe

Professor Russ Moulds at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska painted a vivid picture in our minds as pre-professional teacher candidates. He read us John 14:2-3 where Jesus tells His disciples that in His Father’s house there are many rooms and that He was going on ahead to prepare a place for them. Moulds then explained how each year we’d be taking snapshots in our minds of our students and classes and that someday the walls and mantles and end-tables of our Heavenly homes would be filled with these pictures. What a beautiful image. I try to remember Professor Mould’s word picture when I am discouraged or wonder if there is some other way I could make a living.

I have been fortunate that many of my most rewarding adult friendships are with former students who’ve grown up. I’ve been blessed to attend several weddings. Alvin sends me pictures of historic events when they happen in Washington D.C. where he owns a restaurant on Capitol Hill. Nyasha and Xela keep me updated on their lives in India on Facebook. Christian comes to almost every home football game even though he’s been out for years now, just to stand in the cold and catch up with me (who cares about the game, he doesn’t know these young kids anymore). I try to get together with Kenny at least every couple months to have dinner or a drink. Leon posts odd art photos from his studios in Mexico City on Instagram and never fails to leave comments on my pictures when I post them. Justin offers to speak to my Photography classes when he’s around, sharing his own images from Iowa sporting events, trips to Alaska or even his tour of duty in Iraq. We encourage one another, laugh together, challenge each other and pray for one another.

That’s the thing though- if you don’t care, you probably shouldn’t be in teaching. If it’s just a paycheck and you don’t care about kids, get out.

But if you do care, they’ll break your heart:

“You’re the first person I’ve told, I think I’m pregnant.”

“I just can’t wait to get out of this hell hole, how can I take online classes so I can graduate early.”

“I don’t care, my parents know I don’t care and they don’t care, they’re letting me drop out as soon as I’m old enough.”

“Gawd, that was so fun Friday night, I was drunk off my ass.”

“She’s such a bitch, I swear, if she snap-chats that kind of sh** about me again I’m gonna kick the f***ing sh** out of her.”

“This is stupid, I hate this class.”

So be prepared, teaching is not for the faint of heart, at least not if you actually care about kids.

The three things I recommend are based on another Bible verse, but I assure you that (so long as you’re not taking advantage of your class being a captive audience in order to proselytize them,) there’s nothing in the anti-establishment clause of the First Amendment which would prevent you from applying these in a public school. The verse is Micah 6:8.

  1. Act Justly- Kids will often complain, “that’s not fair!” and administrators will admonish, “you’ve got to be consistent, the key is consistency.” Both of them are talking nonsense. Experienced teachers know perfectly well that you can’t treat every student or every situation absolutely the same. But you can and should always strive to do what’s in the best interest of every students so that they can have the best chance to learn and grow. This won’t always be easy. It not only means that you won’t always make them happy, their peers happy, their parents happy, or your administrators happy, but it will mean using your best judgement. Worst of all, sometimes you won’t get to be happy.Two things are just as true for teachers as they are for parents- one is that you can’t really be their friends, not equal friends anyway, not till they grow up. Nor should you be. The other is that sometimes “this is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you.” They won’t believe it even when they see it, but love hurts, anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

    This also means that not every kid will let you into their world or their heart. That’s okay. Not only will you not be able to befriend or mentor every student because there are too many and too many demands on your time. You won’t be able to connect with every student because they don’t all want to, they don’t all need to, and they won’t all “click” with every teacher. To act justly means that you give everyone a chance and you try to treat them with dignity and respect even if you don’t quite “get” each other, and even if they’re hostile, belligerent, or indifferent.

  1. Love Mercy- One of the things we’re hearing a lot of buzz about these days in our field is failure. Maybe it’s backlash to all the pressure kids feel to achieve and be perfect from their parents or the disproportional emphasis on standardized testing, but more and more experts are telling us that it’s important to let kids fail, teach them to fail, and even encourage them to fail. Failure is how we learn. So if there’s anything we need to do for kids it’s to offer them an infinite number of second chances. In one breath we hear about differentiation and how kids should learn at their own pace, but in the next we’re warned about how holding them back stigmatizes them or makes them imagine that they’re incapable of achievement. That’s why we need patience and kindness in our line of work and to model perseverance for them and to tirelessly encourage them. Above all, to never give up on them. It doesn’t mean that we abolish deadlines or consequences or abandon standards. But it does mean that we help them to realize that there are more than one way to skin a cat and that if at first you don’t succeed- wear a parachute!One of the things that I bend over backwards to try to get across to kids is that there’s a distinction between a person and their actions or inactions. Just because you got a poor grade on an assignment doesn’t mean you’re inadequate or incapable. By the same logic, teachers don’t “hate” you, but perhaps some of your choices and behaviors prevent them from trusting or enjoying you. Everyone needs to be patient with everyone because no one knows what the others are going through. Even without any spiritual or religious context, forgiveness is powerful, especially when you learn to forgive yourself.

    Teachers could be angels of mercy if we would commit to helping students learn how to succeed at failing.

  2. Walk Humbly- Justice enforced without humility can feel like tyranny. Mercy applied without humility can feel like patronizing condescension. Teaching about equality and justice will ring hollow if it comes from someone who’s conceited or arrogant. Teaching about perseverance and resilience in spite of setbacks will ring hollow if it comes from someone who believes that they themselves can do no wrong. Students won’t really respect you if you try too hard to be one of them, but they will want to be “one of you” if they perceive that you are human and approachable.This doesn’t mean constantly over-sharing everything about yourself. It doesn’t always have to mean making yourself vulnerable. It certainly doesn’t mean berating yourself or not having any boundaries. It does mean having integrity and a level of transparency that includes being honest about mistakes and apologizing on occasion. They won’t learn how to cope with failure if you never let them see you fail. It also means that it’s more important to be able to work together than to win every argument.

And if you do happen to be a person of faith, it never hurts to include your students in your prayers. Even if there is no God, it builds feelings of altruism and compassion for those students in your mind, which just might help you have more patience with them and be kind toward them. They may never know, but they don’t have to.

If all that fails, give ‘em candy. I hear some teachers think that works.

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