Without relationships, you can not learn. For me, you can't be a great teacher without developing a personal connection. There is so much depth to our students that on any given day something just might not be sitting right with them. This could impair any learning that would hopefully take place during a lesson. However, when students know they have a safe and secure environment with a teacher who actually cares, they are more likely to open up and work through whatever is going on to allow the learning to then take place.
When I think back to my favourite teachers at school growing up, it had nothing to do with the content they taught me (though I’m sure they were amazing at teaching) but rather how they made me felt. Just like in any relationship, it is the small things that make a difference and remembered. My ninth grade teacher not only showed up to a funeral of a family member but she also remembered every year throughout high school. My fourth-grade teacher helped me understand what it was like to overcome challenges and be resilient. My ballet teacher would sit and talk after a class about everything in life just because she cared. Not only were these meaningful conversations and experiences for me but this also translated into how we interacted inside the classroom. These are the teachers who have taught me most about what it is to be a teacher, how to teach and how to be a person you can be proud of.
Through reflection, this reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Students need to feel safe, to need to know that harm will not come to them and that they are allowed to be who they are without laughter directed at them. Our students need to be able to come to school feeling warm, clothed and with food in their stomachs. Our students need to feel like they belong to a community where individual differences are celebrated. Our students need to know that their teachers care. As students develop their basic needs and their self-esteem is boosted, it is then that the student is able to let their guard down to learning.
In the Durham District School Board in Canada during my student teacher practicum, I assisted with a morning breakfast club for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who may not have had another opportunity to start the day with a bit of food. These kinds of programmes within schools not only help to satisfy the basic needs of students but also helps to build the relationships with the students. When a student sees a teacher coming in early to make sure they have food there is this unspoken mutual respect that instantly appears. Even further when a teacher can then sit down beside the student and have a conversation with them before school. No longer is the teacher seen as just the teacher but more of an equal which allows students to break down barriers and develop a sense of comfort.
I currently work at an international school so things like a breakfast club will never exist at my school. However, even while a student’s home life might have some of the lower needs taken care of, students still need to feel safe and cared for in order to be able to learn. So much of my job revolves around pastoral care and well being of my students. One of the things I have done in my class for the past two years is have a weekly email programme as part of my writing programme. Students are required to write an email to me each week through their student accounts about one of the given topics or anything else they may wish to share. This has allowed students another way to feel comfortable talking to me about things that are happening at school and in their life. Sometimes it is not always easy to have conversations face to face but with the barrier of a computer screen, you can learn a lot about the person on the other end. I have had my students write to me from everything from homework issues, fights with classmates, the death of pets, best friends leaving the country, grandparents that are ill and much more. Would these conversations have come up inside the classroom? Maybe, maybe not. But what I do know is that having the dialogue through email made my learning environment a safe space for any conversation whenever they needed it. Even in the summer, I still sometimes get a few emails from my students showing me that to them, that connection was important to them and in helping them grow.
It is not good enough to just be a teacher who knows the curriculum if you cannot connect to your students to deliver the content in a meaningful way. The only way you can learn what will be engaging for your students is if you take the time to get to know them.
If you are interested in reading more about the email programme I implemented, please feel free to view the following resource I created:https://www.sites.google.com/site/msemilymaclean/gmailhome
Huitt, W. (2007). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [August 10,2015] from, http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/regsys/maslow.html
Each student we have in our schools is unique and reacts differently to different situations. How we connect to who they are as individuals is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. As teachers, it is so important to find ways to build rapport with our students so that they develop a trusting and positive working relationship with the teacher in the school community. By going out of our way to connect with a student on a personal level can have an exponential impact inside our classroom.
Year 3 students participate in a Laptop Bootcamp on a weekly basis with myself, the Education Technology Coach, to support their transition from iPads to MacBooks. This is primarily skills-based with meaningful connections to their units of inquiry. The first week of the Laptop Bootcamp found me faced with a Year 3 student who was having a challenging time. He wouldn’t listen to the directions, leading him to become frustrated when he was unable to do something. He wasn’t open to asking for help or receiving support. He didn’t want to do it, stated he couldn’t do it and that he didn’t want to even use them. He began disturbing other students and preventing them from doing the task at hand. No matter what I did to try to help ease the task, his negative attitude and mindset prevented him from being successful. I walked away from the class knowing that I had to find a way to reach this child and that the flow of the class for the rest of the year would depend on it.
With the clear goal of finding a way to connect with the student, I tried to figure out a way that would know that I genuinely cared about the student. The first thing was to look for him in the playground at break and ask him what kind of mood he was in today. He told me not a good one, which led to further discussion of some things he was struggling with outside of school and we brainstormed how he might go about changing these things and also how he might be able to change his mood at school. I wasn’t sure how successful I had been with the one interaction and knew it needed to be a reoccurring pattern for him to begin to develop trust.
The next day I saw him and asked about his evening and how he was feeling about things today. While his mood had shifted slightly, there was still more that needed to be done. I needed to find a way that made him feel unique and special. So I did what anyone would do before moving on. I asked what he thought about a secret handshake just for the two of us. He looked at me kind of funny and then showed me one he wanted to have.
Every time I see him whether it’s on the playground, in the hallway, or in the classroom, we do our handshake. He lights up with a smile knowing that we have the coolest handshake in town. In class, gets a reassuring ‘You got this’ with a handshake as a combo as he heads back to the desk and tackles the challenge of the day. This week, not only was ready and listening as soon as I got started, but he also finished the task and started helping other students be successful.
What could have been an ongoing and constant challenge in the class became a positive experience for a student and an opportunity to empower him to support others and be a leader in the classroom. Never underestimate the smallest gestures and interactions. One gesture might make the largest difference.