As an educator for over two decades, I find myself becoming a bit nostalgic about my role. I start to look back and think about those times in my teaching career that just felt right. In my current role as a coach, I also seek out support for teachers that will help them create classrooms that feel this way as well. “I want to develop more grit in my students,” they say. Or, “I need to find ways to help my students work through that productive struggle,” say others. “I have some students who just don’t care and seem to bog down all my attempts to make learning activities cooperative,” are other phrases I’ve heard.
Well, do you really know them?
“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” - James Comer
We see the incoming data on Skyward, the grade point average, or the labels written on paper before the school year starts. But do we really know them? And how will we get to know who they really are?
Something in me shifted as a teacher when my personal experience as a mom intersected with my role as a teacher. It was around my tenth year of teaching when we discovered that my youngest daughter had a learning disability. She was also diagnosed with ADHD. Through the years of struggle, this notion that she was so misunderstood by her teachers really broke my heart as a mother . . . and it broke my heart for those I taught as well. I can remember the frustration as I watched her work so hard and put up a good front for her teachers year after year. I held my pen in hand one day and wrote . . .
Do you know her? The one in your class that "just doesn't get it." She's the one who you just can't figure out. Some days she looks like she is right on. She's having a lightbulb moment... maybe.... and then like being hit with a power surge it burns out. You wonder, is she trying hard enough? Is she just goofing off when she giggles to her girlfriend beside her after she asks you to re-explain the problem for the third time? Do her parents expect enough of her? Is she lazy? Does she even want to be here? Who is this girl?
I'll tell you...
She's the same girl who went to kindergarten bright-eyed and able. She didn't know being different back then. But it didn't take long to wonder why she didn't understand what others seemed to. She's the same girl who didn't tell her parents for months that she wasn't able to go to recess or join the class birthday parties because she had a pile of work to complete. She's the girl who took 2 hours to everyone else's 30 min homework assignment, laboring over each problem with her mom at her side, tears of frustration streaming down her face while all the other siblings and kids nearby were out playing. She's the grade schooler who got lost in transition when her parents tried a new school that had more opportunities for intervention....yet she struggled to re-apply her limited skills to a new set of strategies that others had developed. She moved on.... gaps included to the next teacher. She's the middle schooler with a new IEP. And now it's on paper. "Low Working Memory," like a price tag to keep it all in perspective. Does the price tag offer a solution to the money you aren't able to spend? No. Just like the label doesn't offer a solution to the learning that hasn't happened.
She's the adolescent who hears the jeers from classmates and then laughs them off. She'd rather joke about herself now than be the brunt. She's the student who anticipates the teacher's roll of the eyes or frustrated tone when she answers incorrectly once again. She's the teen who cries in her room over the thought that she won't be able to go to college like she had once dreamed. She's the one who comes home and crawls into bed exhausted, she says, from thinking hard all day. She's the one who hears from her peers how another teacher referred to her as "that prep who will just marry a rich guy to take care of her." She looks happy with her friends and her activities and her Instagram posts and her "able" family. But she wears a mask of what she thinks of herself. She's tried to "pull herself up by her bootstraps" time and again. She's been preached to about grit and "never give up." She has Coach Wooden books by her bed and inspirational quotes on her walls. But she's tired. She's tired of trying every day to measure up. She's scared of the future. She's scared she can't measure up no matter how hard she tries. She's embarrassed that she's not like her sister. She's overwhelmed by the amount of make-up tests and assignments that she will need to do in all of her classes to keep her grades up. She's tired, she's embarrassed, she's scared, she's overwhelmed.... she's my daughter.
And I love her. I love that she is the FIRST one to see a breaking heart. I love that she sees the best in everyone around her. I love that she fights for what she believes and stands her ground. I love that she laughs with a joy so deep that it makes everyone around her laugh contagiously. I love her creativity. I love that she wants to take risks and do the things I'm scared to. I love that she wants to travel the world and touch the lives of those who have so much less. I love that she takes things to heart and wants to know the "meaning" of life. I love what I've learned from her even when she struggled to learn herself. I love who she has taught me to be. How she's taught me to fight. How she's taught me to listen. How she's taught me to be quiet. I love how she was made and who she really is.
So I ask again.... Do you know her?
How Do We Know More?
As this new year begins for us as educators, we search for the best ways to be trauma invested, have positive behavior systems of support, make connections with families and teach with social justice in mind. But, let’s not make this harder than it is . . . because it is really all about a relationship. You want to have better classroom community? Get to know your students on an individual level. You want to have a better working relationship with your staff? Get to know their stories. You want more support from home? Honor the family’s funds of knowledge. You want to understand student learning needs and support social emotional growth? Get to know more than the label on the paper in front of you.
One of my favorite summer reads this year was a book by Kyle Schwartz titled “I Wish My Teacher Knew.” He asked one simple question of his 3rd grade students: “what do you wish your teacher knew?” Sticky note responses can give some pretty amazing insight. Take time to notice your students’ interests and write them down as a way to connect. Be relational at the door. Look in their eyes and genuinely ask “how are you doing?” When given the opportunity, share a lunch conversation or attend their sporting event or choir concert.
Are you trying to build some resiliency in your students? Try building their trust first . . . you’ll be amazed at what results. As Schwartz writes, “when we stop seeing students as problems to be solved, we can begin to see the children we teach as valuable partners in problem solving.”
Knowing More = Growing More
My daughter did have some key teachers along the way who built a relationship and partnered with her in learning. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s explanation of College and Career Readiness Standards, “Education systems are only as strong as the expectations they hold for their students.” I’m so grateful these teachers held these expectations for her to achieve. They worked together to build a path for the future she hoped for; using resources that helped her see just how to get there. She fulfilled her dream of going away to college and developed the fortitude to be college ready with the help of these key players in her life who saw more than what meets the eye.
Let's start this year with the basics . . . if our target is student success, let's aim for improving lives through relationship first!
How do you build relationships with your students?
How do your relationships with students help guide them to achieve and be college and career ready?
How do you plan to set the tone this year for a climate that reaches the hearts of those you have been entrusted to teach?
- Building Relationships
- classroom climate
- Classroom Culture
- College and Career Readiness
- school and family connections
- school climate
- social justice
- trauma informed
- trauma sensitive