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September 22, 2016 | Volume 12 | Issue 2
Table of Contents
Field Notes: I Was a "Relationships Second" Teacher
I remember the moment clearly, despite six years having passed. I was a teacher representative on the superintendent's committee to hire a new high school principal. We were in the middle of interviewing four final candidates for the position. As I sat flipping through the candidates' résumés, the parent member of our interview committee spoke "I loved that last candidate. He reminds me of my favorite quote about teaching, 'Students won't care what you know until they know that you care.'" I cringed and recoiled, though I tried to hide it under the stack of résumés.
For many years of my teaching career, this quote caused a visceral reaction because I thought it embodied everything that was wrong with education. In my experience with teachers who embraced this quote, their kids loved the class and the teacher but were no better off academically for being in the class. But hey, they had fun. For so long, it had struck me as a sign of weakness. These teachers would build relationships, make everything warm and fuzzy, slap stuff on poster boards, play games, not hold kids accountable, and then seem baffled that the school was not more competitive on standardized testing. In my mind it was simple: less "kumbaya," glitter, cutesy worksheets, and pretty graphic organizers; more pen and pencil to paper, critical thinking, and deep questioning strategies. On this day when the parent quoted this phrase, however, I cringed for a different reason entirely. She was right, and for so long, I had been wrong.
If anything, I was a good teacher partly in spite of myself. My students could still see I cared about them, even though I obviously put content first. At the end of one year, I was frustrated with myself and felt like I hadn't done the best job teaching a particular class. Jessica, the teacher who worked with several English language learners in the class, offered me some honest feedback. The kids loved me and my class, in that order. She felt that the only thing holding me back from being a master teacher was that it was unclear if I embraced the same order.
Did I clearly love kids first and the class second? Her advice was to focus there; that's where I would find the solution to my "engagement and effort" problem. She reminded me that one of my most promising moments with the class came when I offered to shave my face to match the strange beard of a general from the SpanishAmerican War, in exchange for all students doing their homework for the week, studying, and doing well on the quiz. I wish I could say that moment of connection led to a Hollywood-style ending, but the truth is, it fell flat, mostly because of me.
I brought in everything to shave my beard, laid it out on my desk for students to see while they took their quiz. It was the first time all year that students had kept up with their weekly assignments. Unfortunately, several students struggled with the quiz, and given the low scores, I decided the bet was off. I needed students to learn that in life you've got to do more than come close. Jessica insisted this was a mistake on my part. This group of kids already believed that the world held them to unfair, arbitrary, and nearly insurmountable standards. She candidly shared with me that, ultimately, my response only reaffirmed their belief. In my attempt to teach them a life lesson, I had unwittingly reinforced the wrong one. What if, instead, I had put relationships first?
With these thoughts swirling in my head, the parent's comment rang loudly. Sitting there, just two weeks after my conversation with Jessica, it was clear for whom the bell tolled. We can try to run from the truth, but in the end, if we really reflect on what matters, what is important, certain things ring out. Putting our relationships with kids first is not a weakness. It is not a "cupcake" strategy to cover poor content knowledge. It is the essential piece to engage students and motivate them to give their maximum effort. It is the pathway to getting reluctant readers to read or hesitant writers to bare their souls with pen on page. It is the lifeline that pulls the students out on a ledge back to the center. I cared about Jessica's feedback, because I knew she cared about me. Didn't my students deserve the same?
Gregg Bruno is principal at St. John Vianney Catholic School in Wyoming, Mich.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 2. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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