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Relationships: A Personal View

I began my teaching career like a lot of others in my “generation.”  We were told that we shouldn’t be friendly with our students — relationships didn’t matter and could actually complicate our jobs.  The kids learned through doing what we told them to do, and it wasn’t important whether or not they liked us.  In fact, it was probably better if they didn’t like us all that much…our job was to force children to learn.  (My instructors at San Jose State never verbatim told us never to smile until Christmas, but they might as well have.)

So, I went off to my first full time assignment with a frown on my face and a rigid set of expectations of my students.  Both were completely inappropriate.  My kids loved disrupting class and getting me to blow my stack in front of them (another thing my SJSU “mentors” told me should never happen), and my deadlines were completely inflexible and not up for negotiation.  As for relationships…I didn’t quite see my students as the enemy, but I stayed detached from their lives and wasn’t interested in anything beyond compliance, promptness, and silence.  It wasn’t a formula that promoted a relaxed learning environment, but that was what I had been programmed to do.

Years later, when I got connected on Twitter, I began to see why relationships are so important.  I have since come to the realization that kids don’t learn from people they don’t like

If you are more concerned with every jot and tittle of your school rules than you are with the well-being of the children in front of you; if you hew to a deadline or schedule because you’ll “never get everything covered” otherwise; if you are willing to dock a kid major amounts of credit for an assignment because he or she missed one mouse click; if the kid working 30 hours a week after school gets no sympathy, consideration, or assistance from you on a tough project…guess what? 

Your students won’t like you.

They won’t learn from you.

You will have failed as an educator.

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying you should sacrifice your deepest convictions in order to be liked.  You shouldn’t compromise your morals or your ethics to increase the number of under-18 friends you have.  (If you have that issue, don’t quit the profession, but seek some help from a counselor — your self-esteem needs work.)  But when it comes down to it, is your professional calendar REALLY more important than the students’ needs for belonging, security, and confidence?  More important than the human beings you see in your classroom?

(Look out, dear reader.  The other shoe is about to drop.)

We high school teachers sometimes miss a hidden part of the message about relationships, I think.  It’s relatively easy to win the trust and the admiration of little kids, before hormones kick in, their bodies start transforming, and their attitudes become more cautious, or calloused, or dismissive.  We’ve all been through puberty, and I daresay that everyone reading this blog saw their attitudes toward school change in some way between the ages of 12 and 18.

Here’s the point:  Relationships are two-way streets.  Any relationship involves two people in communication and in personal dynamics.  If one of those two disconnects or won’t engage/communicate/connect, it’s not a relationship — it’s two people occupying an adjacent space and talking past each other.

If you have a student who is unwilling to communicate with you despite your best efforts, who won’t open his/her life up to you, who pushes you away when you try to be present, whose message is, either or verbally, “Leave me alone” or “It’s none of your business”…what’s a teacher to do?

No, you don’t return the favor by shutting that student out or giving him/her the cold shoulder.  You also don’t give up on that kid.  You might just be the one teacher who can crack that hard exterior and either turn him/her on to your subject matter or at least give him/her the sense that they’re not alone in the world, and that someone who isn’t legally required to care about them does so.

Just as importantly, though: you don’t kick yourself for not being the latter-day version of Jaime Escalante or Joe Clark (who certainly didn’t transform the life of every single kid they came into contact with), or the real life manifestation of Mr. Chips or John Keating (who are fictional characters, albeit admirable ones).  I have tried that formula.  It makes me feel worse about not being the subject of a major movie or a best-selling novel, and it doesn’t make me a better educator.  Skip it.

You smile.  You greet.  You affirm.  You stay present to those kids, even if they aren’t as present to you as you wish they were. 

You leave the door open for the relationship.  Maybe that kid, or those kids, won’t walk through it.  But they can’t walk through it if it’s shut.

To paraphrase one of my PLN’s slogans: Do all the things…but don’t try to do them all at once.  Happy Turkey.

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