Please note: Names and details in my articles are changed for the sake of protecting students' privacy.
Here's a moment of genuine connection that stood out to me today while teaching my four classes of 120 students total.
While students were doing an independent practice portion of my lesson, I pulled Kandyce into the hallway. Kandyce has struggled all eight weeks of school so far — and I mean that word, struggled. She hasn't wanted to be unmotivated, but she often has been. Her five key beliefs are a mess.
Here's the conversation we had in the hallway.
Kandyce, this morning when I walked into school, I was feeling kind of tired and groggy, but then I walked in the door and the first face I saw was yours. I've gotta tell you: it seemed at that moment like you were the one person who could make me smile. Thanks for making my day brighter today.
Um, okay. [Looks down. Awkward smile.]
So, Kandyce, how's school going?
What's your GPA?
I don't know a 1.0 or something terrible.
Oh, yeah. Well, you're kinda right, that is a lower GPA than we want it to be. But here's the thing: that GPA makes up about 5% of the total story of you in your ninth grade year. It doesn't come close to defining Kandyce or giving the whole picture of who she is.
[I am making direct eye contact, speaking low so as not to be overheard.]
Listen, I know school is a struggle for you. So we get that GPA better just one point at a time, okay? And since I'm your teacher, I am going to talk to you about it sometimes, because I care about you. But here's the thing: no shame with GPA, okay? There are enough things in life that make us feel shame. Whenever we talk about GPA, let's focus on it as a number we can improve rather than something shameful. And let's just aim at one point at a time and see where we end up — starting now with the lesson we've got going.
And Kandyce, thank you for making my day this morning.
That little bit about this morning was real. She was all by herself, obviously waiting for some friends to arrive off the bus. As soon as I saw her, what flashed into my mind was how hard school has been for her this year. I pictured a breakthrough moment she had in our third pop-up debate. And this strong sense of appreciation for Kandyce flooded in at that moment, and so I just let myself smile — huge. And I said, “How in the world are you, Kandyce?! It's so good to see you.”
And it was.
But here's the question: how do we build strong, education-focused relationships with students like Kandyce, who seem impossibly behind, impossibly under-motivated? How do we communicate with them about school — a topic that often equals threat in their hearts — and at the same time communicate genuine care?
It's that word “genuine” that is both the bugger and the solution. The only way is to actually like our students.
I admit that I have to work hard to like some of my students. Many of them say or do things that can, if I'm sloppy with the inner work, hurt my feelings or cause resentment or make me want to write them off. When I don't like them I go through exercises of putting myself in their shoes. I imagine what it might be like to be them. I know that I can't know their whole story — heck, I can't even know my whole story — but the work of trying takes but a minute. I look for redeeming qualities in them: in their smiles, their senses of humor, their odd mannerisms, their impromptu confessions. I go through spiritual exercises of praying for them and asking God to help me like them. I make notes about them on the clipboard, imagining myself as a researcher studying a world that has never been studied before.
I have so many points in each week where an interaction with a student tempts me toward not liking them. But I've learned that the internal work described in the above paragraph keeps me in range of the most powerful force for building good relationships with human beings: actually liking them. These relationships are built one moment of genuine connection at a time.
There's not a way around this work.
One last thing: This work has a blessed side effect, too. In my own life, I become less easily offended, less self-focused, less “all about me.” Seeing this internal progress in my character, glacial though its pace may be, is one more thing that keeps me engaged in teaching.