I was a struggling teacher once. Twenty years ago—and then yesterday, during my first period class. And several times in between. The difference between the way I dealt with the struggle as an inexperienced teacher and the way I dealt with it yesterday is considerable. To me, it’s all about relationships.
In 1987, I began teaching a class of 8th graders in February. They were quick to tell me that they had “run four teachers off already.” That class made me realize something that has become a mantra throughout the course of my professional life: “If you make them the enemy, they will win.” Those 8th graders were the enemy that year. Each day was a battle, and if I was able to drag my weary body out of the school every afternoon, having only cried once, I considered myself a winner. The next year, and every year after that, I did what was necessary to build relationships with my students.
I started small, throwing out compliments here and there. I soon found out that if I told a girl she had pretty hair or that she had on a nice outfit, she was a little more attentive when I was teaching. And the boys? I noticed that if I told them they were athletic, they not only listened, they made sure their friends did, too. It was difficult with some, but I managed to find one nice thing to say to every single student, every single day.
Soon I wasn’t only telling the boys they were athletic; I was attending their ball games and making sure to comment on their performance the next day. I found their parents in the stands and made only positive remarks about their children. As tempting as it was to say, “He never brings what he needs to class,” that just wasn’t the place. And all of that praise? The students knew all about it when they got to my class the next day.
As the years went by, I found it easier to recognize the positive characteristics that each and every student brought to me. One student I taught a couple of years ago came in angry every day. He would turn his homeroom upside down, ranting and raving about his bus driver. He never owned a pencil that I didn’t give him, and during class he drew orange stick people. One day I told him that he drew the most beautiful orange people I had ever seen. That was a turning point for us. After that, he gave me the best work he could, every day. (I now am the proud owner of thousands of Orange People Pictures.) Later that year, I saw an Orange People Picture in my school district’s art display at my local mall. I cried right in front of the exhibit.
Now, in the middle of all the stress of high-stakes testing and all the instructional demands placed upon us, I can feel my blood pressure lowering when I see my students coming down the hall to me. Those goofy middle school kids are my family during the day, and they know we’re in it together. Our class motto is “Whatever It Takes.” We’ll do whatever it takes to be successful, together, like a family. That motto is hanging on the front wall of my classroom. Right beside it is my message to my students: “I believe in you.” And they know I do.
Oh, I did struggle yesterday. I watched as a grumpy and not-quite-awake 7th grader attempted to disrupt the learning of others. A grumpy and not-quite-awake teacher almost made a 7th grader the enemy. Instead, I walked over to him, spoke calmly, and wrapped my arm around his shoulder. In three seconds he was grinning, and we were all back to work.
Whatever it takes. That’s my advice to all of us who struggle.