Teaching Opinion

Focus on Meaningful Interactions With Students This Holiday Season

By Ariel Sacks — December 20, 2016 4 min read
A black female teacher cheerfully answers questions and provides assistance to her curious and diverse group of adolescent students as they work on an assignment in class.
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I enjoy this time of year personally and as a teacher. At the same time, the winter holidays mean very different things for different people, and as educators, we play vital a role in the wellbeing of our students during this time. Here are a few points that I’ve been thinking about as we move into the last few days of school before the winter break.

Meaningful conversations and content in class mean a little more right now. Any break from school, but especially the holidays, bring more than the usual amount of chaos in students’ lives—both at school and at home. While anxiety can build and emotions can run high, our words can be reassuring and inspiring. Whatever we leave students to think about is going to sit with them a little longer and differently than on any normal school day or week.

I’ve been paying attention to the messages I send and the values I emphasize in my choices around how I use class time. Taking a little extra time to recognize progress students are making, for example, can boost students’ confidence beyond the classroom—and now is an especially good time for this kind of attention.

My 8th graders just finished reading aloud creative writing pieces they wrote in conjunction with a whole novel study of The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (This book always elicits the most wonderful writing from students). At the end of it, one student said, “Clap it up!” and everyone started clapping. It was a positive, light moment, and I decided to expand on it.

“Let’s talk for a minute about what we are actually clapping about. Who can share an idea about our cause for applause?” I asked.

The first student said he clapped for the courage classmates showed in reading their work aloud in front of the class. Another said she was impressed with the quality of her classmates’ work and how seriously they had taken the project. A third student remarked that people had felt comfortable sharing emotions and personal stories, and now she feels that they know each other better.

Taking time to name these accomplishments was worthwhile. Some students may not think much about us when they leave school, but others will replay these moments over and over during their time away from school. I’m glad they’ll have something uplifting to recall.

Managing conflicts with and among students also has extra value right now. During these same readings, one student read a piece that seemed to conjure up a racist stereotype. Other students noticed this and reacted immediately. We stopped and talked about it, teasing apart what made it come across the way it did and why. We didn’t berate the student writer, but kept it thoughtful and professional. I think everyone came away with a clearer idea of how stereotypes work and why they are harmful. I thanked the class at the end for a productive discussion that allowed a difficult situation to be a learning opportunity.

Now, I would always want to take time for something so important, but I share this because it occurs to me that this meaningful conversation now has the chance to resound a little longer for students (as it has for me), as they spend time with their families and away from their school lives. Conversely, if we had not stopped to discuss this, I think the same incident would have resounded in some students’ minds in a very different and negative way.

I’m also being careful not to let stress I may feel personally allow me to escalate unnecessary conflicts with students. I’ve made the mistake before, letting the hectic energy all around us take on a negative tone in my classroom right before a vacation, and I’ve regretted it later. My patience is especially valuable right now, helping to ensure I’ll part with every student on a good note, while still communicating clear boundaries for behavior.

We can also consider the individual students who need us most and know that even brief attention can mean a lot. A colleague of mine has been writing positive messages to one or two individual students during class on a post-it note and passing it to them on their way out. She said the responses have been remarkable. This is a wonderful practice for any time of year. But trying it now, we might focus on students we know will not go home to a happy scene.

I’ve been thinking about some of my students who do not celebrate Christmas—or any holiday necessarily. This is not a big deal for everyone, but I know from personal experience (growing up Jewish in a non-Jewish community) that school around this time can feel isolating. I’m careful not to use language that assumes everyone will be celebrating this weekend. I’m paying some extra attention to my interactions with these students, because I want them to feel seen by me right now.

The more I think about my interactions with students, teaching actually seems to get more fun. This morning during a class, I went to get for a pencil in my backpack and found a piece of plastic pizza my two year old daughter had slipped into my bag without me noticing. I smiled to myself. Later that period, I noticed a quiet student who really seems to be struggling to produce writing lately. We talked about what was happening. He had an idea, but was having difficulty finding words.

Then I got an idea. A little comically, I said, “Would pizza help?”

He lit up, amused. “Uh, yeah!” I went to my bag and got the plastic pizza out and brought it over to him. He laughed. “Thanks,” he said, fighting back a grin. I told him he could keep it on his desk to help him write and return it to me at the end of the period. He did, and somehow “the pizza” seemed to help. I used it again with different students for the rest of the day! They appreciated the attention and humor.

I think this is what holiday cheer means to me.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.