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Better Student Relationships
February 11, 2016 | Volume 11 | Issue 11
Table of Contents
Field Notes: Compliance, Control, and Consideration
As a high school alternative education teacher for many years, I learned that building relationships was the first thing that meant anything in my classroom. Many of my students felt disenfranchised. They didn't know where they belonged or how to belong. I know a simple hallway greeting or a handshake doesn't miraculously change a life; however, I do believe that these small gestures can begin to build relationships that lead to trust and student learning.
I remember a situation when I was an alternative education teacher in a suburban school district. The school did not allow hats or electronics—anything on your head or in your ears was forbidden between the hours of 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. It was sometimes difficult to enforce this rule, simply because when you did tell the student to take the hat off or put away the ear buds, he or she might look at you as if this was the first time this edict had been issued.
One day, John, a sometimes disengaged student, passed by with his hat on. Our "conversation" went something like this:
Me: "Good morning. Please remove your hat."
John looks at me as if I am speaking Mandarin, sighs loudly, and takes his hat off.
Me: "Thank you. I appreciate it."
You may think my courtesy was too indulgent. After all, just tell the kid to take his hat off. I was the teacher, right? Not so fast. It's called modeling good behavior. How often, outside of school, did John hear someone say "good morning," "please," "thank you," and "appreciate"? I didn't know, but I wouldn't assume it was common vernacular among John or his peers.
"Wouldn't Be Right"
As time progressed, I added various phrases to our conversation: "Hey nice shoes," I'd say, "but please take the hat off." Or, "Cool hat, but wear it after 3 o'clock, okay?" I could have written John up for being disobedient. But he never harshly retaliated and always removed his hat, so we continued having our morning chitchat.
Fast-forward to the last day of school, at the end of the day. Students bustled about as they left the building for summer break. John turned the hallway corner with his hat on, saw me and removed his hat and smiled. I started laughing. "Hey John," I said, "it's after school—you can wear your hat now!" He grinned at me and said, "Yeah, I know. But it wouldn't be right."
"It wouldn't be right" resonated with me. Right and wrong are considered the fundamental basics on which one builds an ethical life. How often must our at-risk students face these right and wrong issues? Ten times a day? Twenty times a day? Hourly? During these moments, do they feel as though they are in control and the decisions they make will be the right ones for them? John was willing to allow me to help him make one of these many decisions. Of course he knew the rule; he simply chose not to comply, probably because by keeping his hat on as long as possible, he could have some control of a life largely controlled by others.
Do we allow at-risk students to make decisions and permit them the possibility of controlling their own destiny, and dare I say it, their own learning?
A Foundation of Small Choices
In my classroom, students picked the day for upcoming tests. I would tell students I wanted to test on some of the work we had been doing. I would pick a week, but let them pick the day out of that week. You would have been surprised at their reaction the first time this happened:
"You mean we can pick the day?"
By this point, most of them would have pulled their planners out of their backpacks and would be actually flipping through them to see what was going on during that particular week. Or some would still be in shock.
"Well, what day looks good for you?" I would ask. "Whatever you like, I like. Just pick a day and majority rules. Remember now, when you pick the day I expect we're all going to do really well since this is the day that's best for you, right?"
In making this choice, my students assumed responsibility for their learning. I was merely the facilitator guiding them toward a successful outcome from their decision. There was usually some in-class discussion before deciding on a day. Their demeanor changed after this process. They felt good about their decision and were content knowing that, in some small way, they were given a choice and chose the best possible solution for them. After 25 years in the teaching profession, I have learned that these types of small steps provide the foundation for all change—and that's okay. Over time, the small step of removing a hat without incident and choosing a testing day without anxiety has evolved into student compliance with a rule and control over their learning.
The next time I saw John was the first day of the new school year, he was walking to class without his hat on. My students' first test grade was a successful B average. Small gestures, like giving students consideration and control over their environment, may seem insignificant, but they build the foundation of the relationships that will define our careers as educators. As I reflect, perhaps a simple hallway greeting or a handshake can change a student's life. And if we're truly fortunate, we will be the ones forever changed by the trust our students give to us.
Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach and reading specialist of a large urban high school in Milwaukee, Wis.
ASCD Express, Vol. 11, No. 11. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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