A friend recently asked me this question: “Tell me, what are you thinking about your students?” Taken aback, I responded, “Uh, to be honest, I’m not thinking about them at all.” My mind was instead preoccupied—maybe overwhelmed is a better word—with concerns about curriculum development, scheduling, mentoring student-teachers, testing, and reviewing test data. Somehow, in all my busyness, I had lost sight of the relational component of my teaching. How had this happened after 20-plus years of teaching?
Jim Cummins, the respected University of Toronto educator, says that all learning is social, and he writes that “human relationships are at the heart of schooling.” And yet this human element, which had been one of my strengths in the early years of my career, had all but disappeared by the time I fumbled for an answer to my friend’s question.
Two other experiences this school year reinforced my new insight. One was observing a particular student-teacher, the other was being introduced to the popular social-networking website Facebook.
In the fall, I mentored a student-teacher who became a real favorite with my students. Why were they drawn to her? I wondered. This wasn’t always the case with student-teachers. As I watched her interactions with these students of many cultures, backgrounds, and languages, one thing became clear: She was interested in knowing all she could about each student, and she wanted to interact with them all.
As I thought about this, I recalled the early days of my teaching. What had I cared about most when I first entered the classroom? I had close relationships with my students then, I remembered. And at the end of every school year, I was sad to see them leave. Yet I also recalled that when the previous school year had ended, I just felt numb. What’s worse, I knew in my heart that I’d made few emotional connections with my students.
Another opportunity for reflection came during the Christmas holidays, when my sister-in-law helped me set up a profile page on Facebook. Soon after that, I began getting requests from former students to be added to my list of online friends. I had not interacted with these students in more than 20 years. They were from my first two years of teaching. And as they told me about their school experiences, I had a startling realization.
One former student, for example, wrote, “Thank you for reading to us, and letting us do really cool book reports. Mine was on Bunnicula, and I made a soap carving out of Ivory soap. I had to do it again because I carved the ears off my first bunny. I continued to read that book once a year for about six more years.”
Another, from the same class, said, “Occasionally, I will revisit my journal I kept when I was in the 3rd grade. It is special to me because it was a safe, encouraging, and reflective way for me to express myself. I treasure that you would always respond back in truth and love. That is so dear to me, that you took the time to not only teach my mind, but my soul.”
Through these exchanges, I began to realize the impact my teaching once had on students’ lives. So what happened? How had I gotten from there to here?
Some comments written on one of my annual evaluations from years back gave me a clue: “The young new teacher is often more concerned with affect—having the students enjoy the class and like the teacher. When affect gives some ground to effect—as in pedagogical effectiveness and best use of class time, that is a sign of maturation.” Pleased with a favorable review that said I was becoming a more experienced teacher, I plunged headfirst into delivering high-quality, content-based lessons with perfectly aligned objectives.
As the years progressed, I gradually became more focused on the task of teaching, and less on interpersonal relationships with my students. No wonder I often felt so empty.
With all the demands and daily pressures of teaching, it’s easy to drown in the details. Finding balance is where my concentration lies now. Reflecting on my own experience as a learner helps. Who were the teachers and school leaders who influenced me most? When I look back, I remember those special mentors not because of their academic prowess or pedagogical skill, or even perhaps for what they taught me. Mostly, I remember them because of how they reached out to me personally. One leader from my middle school years stands out to me for passing on, in one of his lessons, this familiar quote: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
So my goal now is not only to teach my students effectively, but to also let them know that they are special to me.
This has made a difference. Just the other day, an advanced English-as-a-second-language student dropped by my classroom to ask if I would be teaching her this year. As I talked with her, I became acutely aware of how much I missed seeing her every day. It was a moment of warmth I felt deeply grateful for. That feeling of genuine connection to those I shepherd through important years of their lives was finally finding its way back home, after being away for so long.
A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2010 edition of Education Week as Student-Teacher Relationships: Back to the Basics