The above note is an actual note that I received from a student on Monday. It’s sweet, and heartwarming, and was more meaningful than I think the student knew.
Let me drop it into context.
I decided to discuss the events of September 11, 2001 with my classes. I put together a mindful presentation that was geared toward their age group. Interspersed through the lesson, I told the students where I was that day, how I felt at each event, and how I and my friends reacted. I was 19 at the time of the attacks.
And, occasionally, I got emotional. It was an emotional day, and it was difficult to relive it six times for six classes. A number of students were concerned and one of them wrote me this note – cute right?
The story could end there…but I have a point to make…
Being a teacher is difficult. I’ve talked before about all the hats we have to wear and all the things we have to juggle on any given day. One of the things teachers – especially new ones – struggle with is classroom management. And it’s hard…because it can’t be taught, it has to be learned.
Any textbook, admin, or teacher blog will tell you that relationships and connections with your students are the FIRST thing you can do to be an effective teacher and to nail your classroom management.
But what does the word “relationship” mean?
Without knowing it, my student defined “relationships” for us in this note. He said “You check on us so I want to check on you.”
Yes, I am a teacher that checks on their students, I ask them how their day is, I ask them who their friends are, I try to make sure that they are seen as individual humans with goals, and dreams and failings…not just as students in my classroom.
Relationship building is more than just “checking on” students. Effective classroom management and relationships comes when students feel safe in your classroom. They need to feel safe in who they are (including who they identify as). I teach middle school – it’s pretty difficult for students to feel comfortable..because…you know…middle school.
So, how do you do it? Well, students need to know what to expect at all times in the classroom. You’ll hear this referred to as “structure.” Books will say that you should lay out what classroom expectations are, show what you’re doing that day, but again…what does “structure” mean? It’s a nebulous word that could mean a lot of things to different people.
You can even have a full list of expectations, but if you don’t follow through they are trash. Additionally, if the consequences are too harsh for the transgression it’s trash…and they’ve lost trust in you.
What does “structure” and “safety” look like? Well, I have a very specific layout that we follow in my class everyday. The kids know what to do when they come in, and they know how to transition from activity to activity. My homework is predictable, and I’ve modeled it for them. They know, absolutely know, that they will have three questions of homework every day. They know how to answer the questions and they know how those questions are graded. I don’t throw them curveballs, I don’t give them surprises, and I don’t give them homework on the weekend
Now, you may be saying…but what about RIGOR?! You know, that word that every principal holds up as a shining beacon of light guiding you to testing season. Look: We have rigor in the classroom. Because when students feel safe, it means they feel safe to try, to go further out on a limb, to give a guess that goes deeper even if they are wildly incorrect.
Because ultimately, you’ve taught them that failing is a part of learning. You’ve taught the students when they fail in your class, you’re going to check on them, and pick them up and help them start again. They trust you to do that.
And then, when you’re struggling…they’ll check on you too.