The last days of summer were winding down and I was preparing to start my first year as a high school math teacher. I was very passionate about teaching math, and was excited to share what I knew about the topic with my students.
My first couple weeks as a new teacher couldn’t have gone much better. Students entered my classroom with high levels of respect, participated in class discussions, completed classwork, and engaged with my lessons.
Two months later and the honeymoon was over.
Student interest in my class was in decline and student behaviors were slipping. Students were talking back to me, arguing with one-another, and no longer completing the homework.
Only a couple months on the job and I was already starting to question whether or not teaching was the right profession for me. I heard my first year of teaching would be rough. However, I had no idea the frustration, difficulty, and exhaustion I would feel.
These frustrations went well beyond my first couple months of teaching. In fact, the first few years were difficult.
If I had to pinpoint one reason I struggled during my early years in education it was due to the following:
I valued teaching content more than building relationships.
Growing up, I enjoyed school. Especially math class. I was always one of the top math students, and enjoyed assisting other individuals who struggled to understand the work. This love for math prompted me to go into teaching high school math.
This mindset carried over to my classroom.
While I was quick to show my students how much I cared about math, I slow to show my students how much I cared about them.
Surely, anyone who knows me would be surprised to hear me suggest I didn't care for my students.
Yes, I'm a caring person. But I'm not sure I did a good enough job demonstrating care to my students.
A few examples:
I failed to provide students with descriptive feedback. Rather than supply students with feedback on assessments and homework assignments, I recall being more concerned about pace of instruction and moving forward with the new curriculum.
I often decided against providing students with additional assistance. Instead, I was of the mindset that if students did not understand the material after it had been taught the first time, student learning was no longer my responsibility.
I often avoided engaging students in meaningful conversations. I had been warned that teachers should not become “friends” with students, and therefore I was leery about having deep conversations with students.
I did not always demonstrate a positive attitude. There were plenty of times when I allowed factors outside of work influence my attitude towards students. My students often felt I was mad at them, when really I was upset with situations in my personal life.
I was much more concerned about my own needs rather than the needs of my students. For example, many of the discussions I had with my classes were focused around my personal interests rather than the students’ interests.
These seem like bad decisions, right? However, my life experiences led me to believe these were effective teaching strategies.
Consider these events:
I recall a number of teachers from my childhood who I perceived to be much more intimidating and scary as opposed to caring and helpful. I often found myself mimicking my former teachers' behaviors as I believed this was how all teachers acted.
College courses were much more focused on content knowledge than building relationships. Whereas I had over a dozen classes geared towards teaching content, there were only a couple classes focused on teacher-student relationships.
My field experiences impacted my approaches to teaching. In one field experience a cooperating teacher taught me “Don’t smile until Christmas.” In another field experience, I was placed with a teacher whose best days were when children were busy and quiet.
When I began teaching, I was given very little coaching in the area of student care. While I recall receiving plenty of guidance in other pedagogical areas, teacher-student interactions and the best methods for building student relationships received minimal attention.
Believe it or not, pop culture played a role in molding my thoughts of what a "typical" teacher should look like. A number of shows characterized teachers as gruff individuals. Mr. Hand (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), Ms. Umbridge (Harry Potter), Mr. Feeny (Boy Meets World), Ms. Krabbapel (The Simpsons), Ms. Truchnbull (Matilda), Mr. Strickland (Back to the Future) and the Economics Teacher (Ben Stein -Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) are all examples.
After several years as an administrator, I noticed the ability to build strong relationships with students was what separated great teachers from average teachers.
But what are actionable steps teachers can take?
I asked this question when I completed my PhD dissertation. Titled "Student Perceptions of Teacher Care", I wanted to understand how the best teachers build strong relationships.
Here were my five key findings from my research:
The best teachers...
Provide descriptive feedback on student work. They take time to respond and comment on student work.
Provide assistance when students struggle to understand course content. They provide real-time assistance when students struggle.
Engage students in conversation about post-high school ambitions. They are willing to step away from content and talk about a student's future.
Display a positive and optimistic attitude. They intentionally use caring interactions even when things aren't happy in their personal lives.
Honor student interests and perspectives. They learning about student interests and understand the different perspectives students bring to the classroom.
In her inspiring Ted Talk, Rita Pierson famously said, “Children don't learn from people they don't like."
Although this concept seems simple, educators often forget this simple truth.
School leaders should not assume their teachers understand relationships rule content. Instead leaders must take intentional steps to reinforce this concept with staff.
Want to check out my PhD dissertation? You can download the full document at the Iowa State Digital Repository.