It is a sad sign of our time that I have to add “appropriate” to the title of this post. Without it, our minds quickly slip to inappropriate affection, conditioned as we are by so many salacious stories on the local news about criminally inappropriate teacher-student interactions.
Despite the news stories (and the fear they create in well-meaning teachers like you and me who care for our students but are only ever one false allegation away from a damaged or ruined career), here's the reality: showing affection for students is a powerful part of the work it takes to encourage student motivation and manage a classroom well. This isn't just some proverbial wisdom talking — care, after all, is one of three key components of teacher credibility. (See the CCP of Credibility for a primer here, or Chapter 2 of These 6 Things for a much deeper dive.)
So how can even the coldest hearts among us start to show affection for students? And how do we do this in a way that is above reproach, giving not even a hint of inappropriate affection? In the following lists, I'm going to share five things we can start doing and two that we need to stop if we hope to make our students feel that we genuinely care about them. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.
Five things to start doing to show appropriate affection for your students
Many people think they project warmth and in fact don’t. And there are some very simple things you can do. One of them is eye contact, particularly when other people are talking. [I]t’s so critical that you look at them when they’re talking because that’s a clear signal of interest. I know lots of people who make this mistake. And even though they are totally listening, they’ll let their eyes wander around the room. And that gives a very clear signal that you’re not, in fact, listening.
The only thing I'd add is to smile while you're looking a kid in the eyes. It doesn't need to be big and goofy — a gentle smile will do — but when we look our kids in the eyes while smiling, we give them a nonverbal indicator that they matter, that they are heard and valued, that we care for them.
2. Use appropriate physical touch. As a male high school teacher, I am very mindful of the fact that touch should be used sparingly, as I don't in any way want to communicate inappropriate affection for my students or to make any of them feel uncomfortable. That doesn't mean, however, that we should never touch! A simple handshake, fist bump, or high-five creates physical connection and shows affection. And yes, I do occasionally get “left hanging,” as my kids say, by a student who doesn't want to shake or high-five. In these circumstances, I make zero deal out of the situation — I just smile and move on.
But what do you do if a student comes up wanting a hug? It does happen, and in these situations I will either reach out my hand for a handshake or, if need be, turn sideways for the classic (and safe) sideways hug. When I have a student that is repeatedly asking for a hug, I will usually say something like, “Let's shake instead. It's good to see you.”
4. Encourage the kids by calling out good things. I'm not talking about those weird passive aggressive moments when you're like, “Okay, class, I really appreciate that Kat is reading quietly right now.” No. I'm talking about any opportunity you see where a kid overcomes a challenge, does something better today than they did yesterday, engages with a hard-to-handle peer, or anything else that's good. What you do when you see this is pull that student aside and simply say what you saw and why it matters.
Example: Kat, I noticed today how you sat and read that difficult article, annotating purposefully as you went, for the full 20 minutes. That wasn't easy. I just want you to know that I see and appreciate your hard work. Keep it up.
And here's an amazing side benefit of seeking to genuinely encourage kids — it can pull you out of an encouragement slump, too.
5. Write down one thing with one student that you appreciate after every hour. If you're struggling to appreciate your kids, try this out. After each hour is done (or if your passing time is too crazy, as soon as you're done teaching or on prep), sit down and write one thing you appreciated from one particular kid in each hour. Just replay the day and see what comes up. If you get stuck, look over your roster and picture your interactions with each kid, stopping once you find something that was pleasant or that you appreciated. Write 1-2 sentences about this, and then move to the next class.
What you're doing with this discipline is training your heart and mind to latch onto the positive moments with your kids — the moments that remind you of the humanity that you share with them, of the reasons why you entered a profession that serves young people, of the reasons why this work is inherently good and noble.
Two things to stop doing
So far, we've looked at practices to add. Let's end with two things to subtract.
1. Stop reducing them to their negative behaviors. The young people in your care are no more or less naturally rational than yourself. It's possible that you've trained yourself to see your emotions objectively during the years since you were the age of your students.
(It's also possible, of course, that you haven't, and that you are blind to how your emotions cloud your vision.)
The thing is, viewing them from a position of superiority is sure to make it harder for you to like them. If you think of them as one-dimensionally dumb or lazy or apathetic or rude or foolish, then you'll struggle to like them. Even if you try to show affection in the ways I suggest above, they'll sense the insincerity. This is what I love and cherish about teaching — you really can't cheat. If you want to maximally impact your students for their long-term good, then you've got to maximally impact your own heart. There's no skipping the internal work.
2. Stop complaining. I know I harp on this a lot, but it's because I've seen in my own heart and in the hearts of countless colleagues the kind of fruit that habitual complaining produces. It just murders you, internally speaking, in the slow way of a malignant tumor in its early stages. Listen: if you sit and complain daily about your students, then it is a metaphysical impossibility for your heart to remain close to the work of seeking their long-term good. The human heart, under its own power, cannot act in love toward that which it despises.
So, determine to love them, and remove yourself from circumstances in which complaining about kids is the dominant form of communication. It would be foolish for a smoker who wishes to quit to spend her breaks in the smoking area outside. You're not a fool, right? Don't be foolish.
I share these seven things, of course, with love and affection for you. You, colleague, are why I write this blog.
Be encouraged. Do the hard work, the hardest of which can be to love the kids.