Did you ever run into your teacher outside of school when you were a kid?
It was weird, right? Like they had an actual life, outside of school, where they bought groceries and hung out with their friends and family. It was so hard to fathom then that my teachers were real, human people.
As a teacher now, the notion of running in to my students (or parents) outside of school is strange. Being on the flip side of this interaction, it’s still weird. Our interactions with students are limited to one space, one circumstance, with learning at the focus.
The #RelationshipsFirst movement in education has led me to reconsider the limitations of how I interact with students. Kids, especially middle schoolers, are more likely to learn from you when they like you. They are less likely to engage in disruptive behavior when they respect you and have a solid relationship with you. This movement goes beyond just building rapport and challenges us to really get to know our students. It’s my view that in order for this to happen authentically, in order for us to have a great relationship with our students, they have to know us, too.
In my classroom, I talk to my kids. Mr. G, as my husband is known by my students, comes up in conversation. Our cat, Chickpea, is a frequent topic when my students and I are chatting about something. My family and my friends do not disappear when I walk into my classroom. They are a part of me, and I bring that part in with me every day. I share photos, stories, and commonalities with my kids. I show my humanity to them. Daily.
This has permeated into my teaching style. When I broach a new topic with my students, I’ll share my own personal experience with it. I build background for my students using my own life, and I give examples that are relevant to them, as well as to myself. As we discuss and recommend books, I share my own favorites from childhood, and with those recommendations often come stories. When we talk about incorporating detail in our writing, I shared detailed accounts of my favorite pizza to demonstrate. The examples I use to teach sentence structure and punctuation are often ones made up about me or my life (i.e. Mrs. G loves coffee and is short). My students get to know me as a person, which helps us identify with one another and build a relationship that is conducive to learning.
They also see my mistakes. When I mess up, whether it’s something big like a lesson plan not going the way I imagined, or something small like incorrectly spelling a word on the board, I own it. I don’t try to skate over the issue and act as though it never happened, or pretend like I did it on purpose. I tell them I messed it up because I’m human. And humans screw up. A lot. Then, we move on.
When we show our students that it’s okay to make mistakes, it’s okay not to be perfect, the pressure for them becomes less intense. Our students realize that in our classroom, failing is okay. If I can fail and move on from it, they can too. Modeling is an important instructional strategy—that remains true when we’re modeling the ownership of our struggles.
Beyond teaching, when my students get to know me, they often feel more comfortable coming to me as a trusted adult.
If When my middle schoolers are facing a challenge or struggle (aka every day), it’s not uncommon for them to seek me out to chat for a few moments. No matter how inconsequential the matter is, they know they can come see me to talk. To feel heard by someone who knows them well. To have a place to feel comforted and loved.
Many of my students are aware that at their age, my parents divorced. They are aware that it was tough for me. I share this with them not to lay my problems out for the world to see, but because for a lot of my students, this is their reality, too. Feeling as though they have someone who won’t just listen but who understands is important to them. Sometimes it completely changes the game.
Students are shy to talk about their stepfamilies, half-siblings, and what have you. But when they see that someone they know, someone they respect, also has a stepdad and half-brother, it becomes normalized. They are less afraid to share their lives because they know it’s not weird.
Just last year, I had a student in my class dealing with some incredibly difficult personal issues. She was in a very dark place in her life, and did not know where to turn. Because we had built a relationship and she felt comfortable with me, I was able to sit with her and provide a place of comfort and love that she needed in that moment. We got her help, found her additional support, and continued to chat when she needed it. She let me know at the end of the year that our relationship had changed her life and helped her feel valued when she required it most.
Many students walk into our classrooms in need of our love and support. When we allow them to see that we, too, are human it makes them feel more comfortable in our shared space. It lets our kids know that they can make mistakes, and it’ll be okay. It oftentimes shows them that their struggles are not something they need to carry alone, that others have experienced them before and made it through. It provides a sense of belonging for those struggling to find their place.
When our classrooms become a place where relationships are the focus, learning comes so much more alive. Our students want to be there. They want to participate. They want to engage. They want to make you proud.
Relationship building is a two-way street. Building rapport is getting to know our students and tailoring what we teach to what we know they like. Incorporating their interests into our lessons and ensuring we ‘reach them’ through this inclusion. It is not at all bad, but it is largely one sided. Building relationships, on the other hand, is allowing ourselves to be human in front of our kids. It’s more than just knowing who is interested in what books or movies or sports teams. It’s knowing who our kids really are and letting them know us too.
I love this movement. It’s changed me as an educator and allowed me to create a truly incredible classroom culture. I watch my students grow, change, and experiment. Not just in language arts, but in the lives that I am fortunate enough to be a part of.
And I hope it won’t be weird when they see me at the grocery store buying 4 pints of Graeter’s. They already know it’s my favorite.