Throughout the year we’ll be featuring stories from Hope Street Fellows in Utah. Thank you for sharing your story, Kristin!
For the first time as a student, I felt like I belonged somewhere
Just before I began the fourth grade, my parents moved me from a private school to a public one. It did not go well. I had no friends; the other students had already formed social groups, and as a shy child, I didn’t feel comfortable trying to join them. I didn’t feel particularly comfortable with my teacher either, so I spent a lot of time alone that year, playing jacks on the playground during recess.
Things took a decided turn for the better in fifth grade because of an amazing woman: my teacher, Mrs. Whitney. For the first time in my public education career, I felt like I belonged somewhere. She treated me like I mattered. I was encouraged to engage with other students, but she was also willing to give up her free time during recess to talk to me if I needed it. She let me have peppermint candies from off her desk and allowed me to help clean erasers (a coveted job in elementary school). That relationship gave me a sense that, for the first time, I was a part of something at that school. In all honesty, I remember almost no academic lessons I learned in that class (except “Fifty, Nifty United States”), but it ranks as one of the best years I ever had. It’s been almost 40 years, and I still remember Mrs. Whitney with something akin to idol worship. She was the type of teacher I strive to be today: one who cares about her students and makes every attempt to be a part of their lives.
The kind of teacher I didn’t want to be
On the flipside, my eighth grade science teacher showed me the kind of teacher I didn’t want to be. About half-way through the year, he actually asked me why I wasn’t as smart as my older brother. To be fair, my brother is a genius, but that question set me back. I was a typical junior high student with my share of insecurities, and that moment is burned forever in my mind because of the hurt and shame it engendered. I felt like I wasn’t important, that I somehow fell short. From that point on, I struggled to learn from that teacher, since I felt that nothing I could do could ever be good enough. I have been teaching for twenty-three years now, and because of that one incident, I still won’t talk to students about their older brothers and sisters unless they bring it up. I strive to build a new relationship with the student I have now, regardless of how I felt about his/her siblings.
Interactions with my 5th and 8th grade teachers showed me the type of teacher I did and did not want to be with my students. Both made me realize the importance of positive relationships in the classroom, and how much more receptive students are to teachers they believe care about them. I firmly believe that strong relationships between students and teachers are critical in the classroom.
How do I build strong relationships with more than 200 students?
This sounds great on paper. But, how do I build strong relationships with every student when I have more than 200 students each year? How do I know what each student needs? Recently on Twitter, I saw a challenge posted for teachers: within the first month of school, learn three non-school-related things about each student. It’s a great idea, but…How???
A turning point came for me last year. Near the end of the first term, our new principal emailed the faculty and asked that we stand outside our rooms between classes to greet our students as they moved from class to class. My immediate reaction was annoyance. Those five minutes were priceless for me: I ran to the restroom, put away papers from the previous class period, took roll as the students came in the door, answered questions for students, and if there was any time left, had a minute or so to breathe. The fact that my principal would ask me to give that up irritated me. However, I’m basically a rule follower, so I did as he asked.
Priceless time to invaluable opportunity for connection
The next day, I stood outside my door and greeted students as they moved to their next class. I talked to a former student who was on his way to calculus class. I chatted with a girl I had taught the year before as she headed to her internship. And, most importantly, I talked to my current students as they came in the door. We only had a few seconds, but it was enough time to ask Kendall if she had enjoyed the reading for the day. It gave Ashley a chance to ask questions about the writing homework on her way into class. I could talk to Cole about the basketball game he played in the night before. In short, it gave me the chance to have a one-on-one connection with each of my students. It took very little time before I realized how valuable that was. With three classes of 35 or more students every day, it is difficult to connect with each student during a class period. The opportunity to build relationships with my students in that five-minute passing period has proved invaluable.
When I spend five minutes a day connecting with my students about their lives, they become more involved with what we are doing in the classroom. I’ve found that when students feel comfortable talking to me about things outside the classroom, they’re more likely to discuss the questions they have about classwork as well. When we have a class discussion about the literature we’re reading, the students are more likely to participate when they feel safe making a comment. The relationships we build help create that safe environment.
In the end, it’s the relationships that matter. My students won’t remember the names of every rhetorical device or logical fallacy we discuss. They won’t remember the themes and tone of every novel. What I hope they will remember is that I care about each one of them as an individual… and that I want the best for them. If I can accomplish that, I will consider myself a successful teacher.