Connecting with challenging students that were often reprimanded by teachers or school officials has always come naturally to me. Their tough exterior, a defense mechanism, made me want to get to know the child behind the façade and discover why they were acting out. Once I decided to become an educator, one of my personal goals was to get to know my students beyond the textbook. I let them know that I cared for them and had high expectations for their futures. I stressed to them that I was equally concerned about their academic progress and their social and emotional well-being. I believe that until we acknowledge and address the social and emotional issues that hinder these students from fully participating in the educational experience, we will never see the desired academic gains.
In my training sessions, I often ask teachers to think of a student they are concerned about outside of school. Everyone can quickly name one or more, yet educators go through their daily routines hoping that the child’s problems will miraculously go away without intervention on their part. Educators must diligently find resources for students that are struggling academically, emotionally or socially. Children must feel physically and emotionally safe and know that school is a place that values them as individuals and embraces their differences be it in race, culture, dress, academic skills or learning styles.
In my 18 years at the campus level I met several challenging students. I constantly made a conscious effort to build relationships with them by asking about their interest, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses and goals. I then used this information to guide my instruction by finding topics and activities that I felt were relevant to my students and would engage them. I made it a point to attend sporting events, school plays, band/orchestra concerts and several other functions. For many of my academically struggling students these were the areas in which they shined. Sometimes I even tried to connect in untraditional ways such as; arm wrestling, rapping, line-dancing and performing in the school talent shows. These efforts only helped in my quest to be more connected and approachable. When I did have to take a firm stance, students more readily accepted it because they knew it was from my heart. Little did they know that when they stated in their anger, “You remind me of my mom”, it was the ultimate compliment.
Sometimes it only takes something as simple as greeting students as they enter your classroom or commenting on a new haircut to grow a personal connection. Letting students know that you “see” them and ‘‘value” them is important. Students have an antenna for authenticity and can sense when you are really concerned about them, and will usually perform better for teachers they have a connection with. With all of the demands placed on educators such as a more rigorous curriculum, an increase in the level of diverse learners in our classrooms, and an ever-evolving standardized test, it is easy to get wrapped up in teaching the content and forget about the child we are teaching.
When I think of making connections I often think of Jeff, an eighth grader who was moved to my class mid-year because he was having difficulty with another teacher and failing English. Jeff was very withdrawn, quiet and had a bad case of acne. He was challenging because he would not engage with the class and wanted nothing more that to be left alone to sleep. I tried to engage Jeff in a variety of ways and somehow, during one of our conversations, I realized Jeff loved the era of the “Zoot Suit.” These oversized suits with long chains hanging from the pocket watches were all the rage in the 40’s, and many topped off the suit with a wide brimmed fedora hat to give an added air of mystery. As Jeff would complete his work, I would bring in reading material and pictures from the Zoot Suit era and we would have great conversations. As time passed, Jeff began to trust me and open up more. By the end of the year, we were both excited about the eighth grade dance where he would showcase his “Zoot Suit.” That’s me beaming in the picture below, and that’s Jeff looking very handsome and debonair. I’m happy to report that he did pass 8th grade English, but I’d venture to guess that if our paths crossed as adults, little time would be spent discussing verbs, or expository essays. We would discuss his life, his dreams and if he still owns a Zoot Suit. So, when the profession drains you, take time to reflect on why you became an educator, how your relationships with children will impact their lives and what steps you will take to build authentic relationships with the students you teach.