I began my professional career as a high school math teacher. Like many secondary teachers, I was passionate about my content area and excited to teach my subject to students.
My first weeks of teaching couldn't have gone much better. Students were respectful of one another, participated in activities, and completed homework.
"This teaching thing aint so bad!" I decided as I headed out for a long Labor Day Weekend.
Unfortunately, I made a classic rookie mistake: I spoke too soon.
By November my classes had gone from orderly to out of control. Students were arguing with one another, disinterested in lessons, and no longer completing assignments.
Only a couple months on the job and I was already starting to question my career choice. Others had warned the first year of teaching was difficult, but I severely underestimated the exhaustion and hopelessness I would feel.
These frustrations went well beyond my first couple months of teaching. In fact, the first few years were challenging. If I could pinpoint one reason I struggled as a beginning educator it would be the following:
I valued teaching content more than building relationships.
I enjoyed school growing up - especially math class.
Always one of the top math students in our grade, I loved using math skills to solve real-world problems. And when peers asked for assistance on their math work, I felt important. The combination of math success and feeling helpful pushed me towards a career in secondary education.
But there was one problem: While I was good at showing students how much I cared about math, I was bad at showing students how much I cared about them.
Surely, my closest companions would be surprised to hear me suggest I didn't "care" for students. Don't be confused - I've always been a caring person. But there's a difference between caring intentions and caring actions.
Consider these examples: As a beginning teacher, I rarely...
Gave meaningful feedback. Rather than give students feedback on assessments and homework assignments, I was preoccupied with pace of instruction and moving forward with new curriculum.
Provided additional assistance. I believed if students did not understand the content after being taught the first time, student learning was no longer my responsibility.
Engaged in meaningful conversations. I was warned teachers should not become “friends” with students. so I dodged deep discussions in my classroom.
Displayed a consistently positive attitude. Outside influences often impacted my classroom demeanor. Students believed I was mad at them, when really I was upset with personal situations.
Considered student interests. I believed I was a pretty entertaining guy and often covered topics that mattered to me as opposed to topics that mattered to students.
These seem like bad decisions, right? Why was I so cold toward students?
It is often suggested teachers "teach the way they were taught." While I can't speak for everyone, several life experiences led me to believe I was doing nothing wrong.
Consider the following:
Previous Teachers: I recall a number of childhood teachers being intimidating and scary as opposed to caring and helpful. I found myself mimicking former teachers, believing this was how all teachers behaved.
Pop Culture: Society hasn't been kind to educators. A number of shows - Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Mr. Rooney), Matilda (Ms. Truchnbull), Harry Potter (Ms. Umbridge), The Simpsons (Ms. Krabappel), Boy Meets World (Mr. Feeny), and Saved by the Bell (Mr. Belding) - characterize educators in a less-than-stellar light.
Teacher Preparation: College courses were more focused on content knowledge than building relationships. Whereas I had numerous classes geared towards teaching content, only a coulple classes focused on student relationships.
Practicum: My field experiences were ... interesting. In one experience a cooperating teacher taught me “Don’t smile until Christmas.” In another, I was placed with a teacher who loved giving kids busy work to keep them quiet.
Induction: When I began teaching, we were given very little coaching on student relationships. While we received plenty of pedagogical guidance, best practices in teacher-student interactions received minimal attention.
When I reflect on my early teaching days I am embarrassed these decisions. I wish I could apologize to all my former students!
After several years as an administrator, I have concluded the ability to build strong relationships with students often separates great teachers from average teachers. But what are the specific, actionable steps teachers can take to build relationships?
This was the focus of my PhD dissertation. Titled "Student Perceptions of Teacher Care", my goal was to research and characterize the "look fors" of teacher care.
The five key findings from the research were as follows: 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 flounder.
Engage students in conversation about post-high school ambitions. They willingly step away from content and talk about a student's future.
Display a positive and optimistic attitude. They intentionally use caring interactions even when their personal lives aren't optimal.
Honor student interests and perspectives. They learn 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.
Content means nothing without relationships.