I fondly remember the night just before my college graduation when my education professor invited our entire class over for dinner. We all reminisced about our university days while the professor's wife prepared spaghetti and garlic bread. That night I understood that one reason I had done so well in this class was because the professor nurtured positive relationships with his students. We all wanted to do well for him. And the culmination of that nurturing was happening right there in his home.
Fast forward a few months to my first year of teaching in a high school. I was struggling with classroom management, finding it hard to corral an active group of seniors, mainly because I was a 22-year-old who looked as though I could be one of them. I hadn't been able to pull off the "Don't smile until Christmas" rite of passage for a first-year teacher, a tip I had heard numerous times as I began my career. So I figured I'd try something that I had seen work in the past—I invited my students to my house for a spaghetti dinner.
I was surprised at how quickly the students tried to turn my home into a high school party, a scene right out of so many Hollywood versions of what high school students do when they have a room, furniture, and no parents around. It was a catastrophe. And once we returned to school, I noticed that my classroom management had not improved. Those students were no more willing to listen to me than they had been before that dinner gone wrong.
As the years have passed, I have improved my classroom management practice through trial and error and by carefully watching my colleagues and their relationships with students. I've seen it all—from the teachers who are "friends" with adolescents who divulge all of their personal dramas to them—to disciplinarians who present the "my-way-or-the-highway" approach that usually includes yelling at students and humiliating them in front of their peers.
A case in point: Many years ago, I walked into my school library to hear a teacher call out to me across the room, "Hey, Mrs. Rigsbee! These kids are stupid!" Then she walked away from her students, shaking her head in disgust. I wasn't surprised later when I witnessed numerous disruptions in that teacher's classroom. Students can't learn in a place where they don't feel valued.
So what is the relationship balance in a classroom? Where is that exact point at which students feel cared for in an appropriate way but know that they must respect the teacher and that they are expected to learn? Does it include befriending students… or meting out stern reprimands… or both? What components of teacher/student relationships are conducive to optimal student learning and minimal teacher stress?
It Starts on Day One
I've often referred to the aura or the air of a teacher when describing how the relationship balance begins. I saw it for the first time when I was in college studying education; my class visited a nearby high school. There I saw Mrs. Brown walk into a room of teenagers, and I witnessed every student in the room sit up a little straighter.
Mrs. Brown was barely five feet tall, a wisp of a woman, but when she spoke, she conveyed a message of "I am the teacher. I care about you, and I'm in charge here." Her students hung on every word.
I have worked to emulate the presence that I saw that day, and I believe it starts on the first day of school. I begin by greeting every student at the door. (Harry Wong, in The First Days of School [Harry K. Wong, 1997], suggests that we shake every student's hand.) I make eye contact with each student, and without disrupting the flow as they walk in the room, I may touch one on the shoulder, pat another on the back, shake hands, or exchange a high five.
I don't spend a great deal of time that first day on rules and procedures. Instead, I share stories about myself and get to know the kids in a way that suggests, "We're a family in this room. I will do whatever it takes to ensure that when you leave here after 180 days, you will have had a successful school year and will have grown as a person." I have the words "Whatever it takes" posted in front of my classroom. I tell my students that I'm determined to be a teacher who makes a difference in their lives. We laugh together and make promises to learn together beginning on that first day; the remainder of the year is built on those commitments.
The structure of the classroom is important as we teachers develop relationships with our students; we've lost many a student to disorganization. When a teacher frantically searches for materials or is uncertain about the day's lesson, students will surely find their own entertainment. But when students enter a classroom in which the teacher has prominently displayed the learning goals and agenda and begins class by discussing his or her expectations for the day, students are more likely to focus on learning instead of finding ways to entertain themselves, taking their classmates along for the ride.
It's also important that students feel that their teachers want them to learn—not just so they can perform well on standardized tests, but for their overall growth and to ensure they will have bright futures. Yesterday I told one of my 8th graders, "I need you to do this work so you'll be successful in middle school, ready for the high school you'll be entering in four months, and then ready for college and your 'happily ever after.'" He knew I sincerely care about his well-being, and he completed the work. I work hard to push down the following words that sometimes yearn to rise out of my throat: "You need to know this because it'll be on the test." I want them to love to learn, not love to take standardized tests.
A Respectful Classroom
Several times during my career, colleagues have asked me how I manage to get along with troublesome students that others can't reach. For years I answered, "I just love all my students." But now, as a veteran educator, I realize that it's not so much about love as it is about respect and consideration. Some students are just downright lovable; these students make it easy for teachers to establish a connection. But others are more difficult. I can reach them just by listening and paying attention to their concerns, griefs, and longings, even if they seem petty and unimportant.
Yesterday, a student stopped by my room during class change. I was juggling numerous tasks but resisted the urge to reprimand her for potentially being late to her next class. As it turned out, she just wanted to tell me about her pet rabbit, a bunny named Muffin, then off she went. That afternoon in the hallway, she wrapped herself around me before heading to her bus. I thought about how that scenario might have gone differently when she entered my classroom—yet another stressed-out teacher scurrying her along, too busy to care about a 6th grader. I gave her three minutes. Sometimes three minutes can make a world of difference.
Shawn, whom I don't teach, comes into my room every day. He's usually asking for lunch money or snacks, and he's always out of the class he belongs in. Some days, I just want to push him in the right direction, but instead I take a deep breath and give him a few minutes of attention. His last visit was purposeful; his friend had been killed in a gang fight. What if every teacher, all day long, scurried Shawn away? Who would he eventually find to listen to him? Those same gang members who killed his friend?
Another component of an atmosphere of respect includes never humiliating a student. Humiliation is a tactic that can result in quiet classrooms filled with scared children. A principal walking by may confuse this for a well-managed classroom. However, students who are humiliated, especially in front of an audience, are rarely receptive to learning.
I have an adage I share with beginning teachers: "If you make students the enemy, you will lose." I usually follow up with, "There are more of them, and they have an audience." You can't reach a student who is resistant because of anger, fear, or humiliation. Students can only thrive in an atmosphere of respect; there, they will learn the curriculum as well as skills for interacting with others respectfully and with kindness.
A Passion for Teaching
Students know the difference between a teacher who is there merely to pick up a paycheck and one who loves getting up and going to work every day. I remember standing over the copy machine one day, thinking, "I just love teaching pronouns!" Some may think it odd that I enjoy teaching a part of speech so much, but most teachers have a passion for sharing their knowledge of a subject they love.
The relationship balance includes not only loving one's subject matter but also advocating for one's students. We must represent their needs to other adults in the building, carefully explain concerns to parents, and assure our students that we have their best interests at heart.
I know I'm passionate about teaching because when I stand outside my classroom door, I can't wait to see those goofy faces coming toward me. I can't wait for the high fives, the hugs, and the laughter. And I can't wait to see whether my students will get as excited about the book we're reading as I am. If they don't, then it's my mission to find ways to make it interesting or figure out what's going on in their lives that's interfering with their focus. That's part of my job as a committed teacher.
I have spoken often of my 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Warnecke, who took a scrawny kid from the wrong side of town and developed her into a reader and a 1st grade poet. One teacher who had the perfect balance of respect for children and discipline in the classroom recognized a glimmer of self-esteem and developed it into a teacher-to-be. Fifteen years later, I'd be looking at my own students and working to find my way with them.
As I talk to teachers, I tell them that we all have the opportunity to be someone's Mrs. Warnecke—not only the opportunity but also the honor, the responsibility, and, in fact, the obligation to be that teacher who makes a difference in the life of a child.
I understand that one reason I have such a connection with students is because I once had a teacher who gave me a chance. I was lucky to witness early on what the relationship balance looks like. And I work to pass it forward every day.
Cindi Rigsbee is the literacy coach at Gravelly Hill Middle School in Efland, North Carolina, and the beginning teacher mentor for Orange County Schools. She was North Carolina Teacher of the Year for 2008–09. She is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke (Jossey-Bass, 2010), which tells of her journey as a teacher;
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