Correcting Our Connecting - ASCD
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September 1, 2016

Correcting Our Connecting

To get behind our students, we need to show them—not merely tell them—that we care.

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Social-emotional learning
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Before I became a teacher, I worked in food service. I loved it. I was part of a high-functioning team in a dining hall that served three meals a day to thousands of hungry undergraduates. Each summer we transitioned to hosting conferences, during which we served cardiac surgeons, cryptographers, cosmologists, and cheerleaders. We worked long hours, made messes, served healthy and delicious food, and always left the kitchen at night as clean as we found it in the morning.

There are lots of reasons why I loved the work—so much so that I almost chose it as my career rather than education. In particular, one practice I learned in the kitchen taught me a lot about care. The practice is just two words: "Behind you." It's what every person on the noisy kitchen floor is taught to say as they carry scalding water or sharp knives while maneuvering around others. "Behind you," we'd say in that dangerous environment, to alert others that we saw them, that we recognized their vulnerability, and that we would keep them safe by letting them know we were there.

Wherever I was in that kitchen and whatever work I was doing, I heard those two words filling the space with a constant message of safety and compassion. As a result, I knew I was seen, trusted, and cared for. That made me feel like a valuable part of a team, it made me work harder, and it made me want to take care of others.

The Kitchen Isn't the Classroom

When I became a teacher, things changed. In school, I heard a lot about care but it didn't feel like the kind I was accustomed to in the kitchen. It's not that my colleagues and I didn't go to great lengths to explain to students how much we cared about them. We did. It's just that the words we said weren't supported by what those words did.

For example, we'd help students by publicly telling them what they were doing wrong, and then later we'd scold them for not requesting more help. Or we'd shower students with praise for their intellect, then tell them we were disappointed when they didn't persist in challenging tasks that might broadcast their incompetence. We'd even exclude some students from class with "tough love" detentions and suspensions whenever their (mis)behaviors failed to please us; then after their forced isolation, we'd explain that their punishment was designed to help them learn how to properly connect with others. When all else failed, we'd try to encourage our students with heartfelt expressions of sympathy (or was it pity?) when we assumed they emerged from deficient homes or possessed defective cultural attitudes toward schooling, and then we'd turn around and shame them for becoming withdrawn or neglecting to submit their homework.

Observing these practices, I began to recognize the classroom as a dangerous place. Whereas my food service experiences confirmed that I was seen, trusted, and cared for, my fellow teachers and I were cooking up forms of care that essentially made our students disappear, made them understand themselves as untrustworthy, and ultimately made them feel unsafe. Believing we were absolved by our good intentions or that we could make classrooms "safe spaces" simply by declaring them so, it seemed to me that we often cared more about our students' compliance and productivity than their psychosocial and cultural well-being. Our care was therefore more aesthetic than authentic.

Yearning to reproduce the "behind you" experience for my students, I started to investigate care as a pedagogical, relational, and cultural phenomenon. What follows are a few insights I picked up along the way.

Why Being Dispassionate Doesn't Work

Many of us were taught to be objective in our work, to maintain some distance between our students and ourselves, to be emotionally detached as a way of establishing discipline and sustaining consistency. We were told, "Show 'em who's boss," "Don't smile before Thanksgiving," or "Never let 'em see you sweat." The message in these maxims is that we are to maintain control and curb personal connections so that relationships with students don't cloud our professional judgment or complicate our decision making. We are to remain unbiased, and bias comes from the closeness of relationship, so closeness must be avoided.

This dispassionate, distant approach mirrors the institutional design we provide for students as they transition between elementary and secondary schools. Elementary grades are marked by their intimate, caring, family-like, hugging-rich teacher-student relationships. But middle and high schools abruptly move to bell schedules, lockers, multiple teachers, admonitions against hugs, and high-stakes tests, tests, tests.

Many students experience this efficient but impersonal environment as alienating and isolating. Just when enriched relational connections with natural mentors outside the family and guided social experimentation among peer groups become developmentally necessary, we create learning environments that are often stripped of relational connection. Our preoccupation with content and compliance coupled with our personal obsessions with composure, objectivity, and productivity delivers to students precisely what they do not want or need—an often sterile, anonymous, uncaring learning environment bereft of meaningful adult interaction.

Spend some time with preteens and adolescents and it's abundantly clear they crave enthusiasm and connection. They want to relate and emote. Why, then, do we work so hard to try to stay removed and indifferent? And why do we guard against relational transgressions by issuing threats ("Detention!") or mobilizing their fear of ostracism ("Suspension!")? It seems that to get students to do what we want, we sometimes use our relationships with them to make them feel either bad or afraid. This is a recipe for resentment, resistance, and withdrawal (and it also teaches them how to bully).

If we want our students to be educated more than manipulated, convinced more than coerced, and even indignant more than indifferent, we have to approach our work with a relational and sometimes even passionate orientation. We need to let them see us sweat and smile way before Thanksgiving. Students know we're not robots, so let's not try to act like them.

One quick tip on how to do this: use the hallway not to police behavior, but to connect with students. I would stand outside my classroom door during the passing periods so that I could greet kids informally. I'd try to focus on engaging those students with whom I had not connected recently by tossing them a ball. They'd toss it back or walk up and hand it to me; that contact provided opportunities for smiles, jokes, and little questions about their lives. This, in turn, strengthened my relationship with those who might otherwise become invisible, and it broadcast a gentle, friendly, welcoming presence that seemed to make them feel seen.

The Politics of Care

We connect with and care for our students in and through institutional, curricular, and disciplinary contexts that are not neutral. Those contexts pick favorites, and so do we. Racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, monolingualism, and ableism all shape how we read and respond to our students.

Look, for example, at how we make judgments about low- versus high-expectancy students, how we make decisions about punishments for (mis)behavior, and where we allocate resources and teaching talent within our schools. If you're willing to ask hard questions about such practices, you'll likely find ample evidence that we tend to divert resources to those we think "deserve" them, which means we tend to withhold resources from those who likely need them the most. Connecting with students is therefore political because it involves power.

Most students are acutely aware of this, but many educators try to hide it. We deliver specious assertions that schools are meritocracies, we create point systems and "participation grades" that we think are fair, and we make baseless bootstrap claims that "you can be anything you want to be," all of which depict for students an even playing field that they know doesn't exist. Of course, some are lifted by their education and learn to engage it as a source of possibility, but it is also true that others are pushed down by the realities of school and consequently experience it as dangerous. To care for students who face inequity while refusing to recognize who that inequity privileges and oppresses is ignorant at best and a form of malpractice at worst.

Relationships with students, particularly adolescents, are therefore enriched—not undermined—when we allow kids to "get real" with us about our world and our education system. As officials in that system, we need to admit that students and their families often read us as functionaries carrying out the system's default agenda of sorting and ranking people according to criteria they have little say in developing. Students see that we have the power to grade and to discipline—a power they will rarely be granted. Whether deliberate or implicit, our biases sometimes exacerbate the imbalance of power in the teacher-student relationship and lead to the sort of disproportional disciplinary and academic outcomes that are now widely reported and rightfully maligned across the country.

When we openly acknowledge the power dynamics in our society and the often inequitable systems we construct to educate and discipline youth, we demonstrate to our students that we trust them with hard information and are ready to stand behind them when they confront injustice. In the end, to truly care for students in a way that allows us to claim authentically, "I've got your back," we have to work with youth to recognize and articulate the political realities all of us must shoulder.

We Can't Expect Students to Trust Us

Here's something we teachers forget all the time: In human relationships, trust has to be earned. The more a person displays characteristics that are deemed to be safe and familiar, the more likely it is that we will agree to become vulnerable to their actions. Determining another's trustworthiness, therefore, requires observation, experience, and good old-fashioned time. Given how vulnerable students are to our moods, evaluations, and decisions, students need to determine whether we are worthy of risking interpersonal engagement before they agree to learn from us.

So why do we often demand their trust on the first day of school? We may think we deserve students' trust, but that doesn't mean we've earned it. (As a comparison, do you trust that outside expert charged with providing your faculty professional development just because your principal hired the presenter?) Our credentials, cultural capital, privilege, and expertise may comfort some students and make them more likely to trust us sooner, but those same features may threaten many students who know school has long underserved or oppressed those who come from backgrounds like theirs.

Our students' wait-and-see approach when it comes to trusting us is therefore reasonable, prudent, and even savvy. The best ways to earn that trust depend on a host of factors too long to list here, but one thing is sure—a quick way to demonstrate you aren't trustworthy is to demand that your students trust you before they know you.

Anger Isn't a Threat

In my book, Make Me! (Harvard Education Press, 2015), I spill a fair amount of ink explaining where student anger sometimes comes from, how it can be misunderstood, and what implications that misunderstanding can have for students' academic success and personal well-being. One of my core assertions is that anger, in and of itself, is not a threat. It's an emotion. The real threats are apathy, disengagement, indifference, neglect, cruelty, and violence. Anger, on the other hand, is a resource that educators can use as a relational thermometer—a tool to measure the heat that may be rising or falling in the connection. As I have written before: To punish anger would be like smashing the thermometer because it's hotter outside than we wish it were. It's far better to preserve the thermometer and deal with the heat.

Think of it this way: We should consider ourselves lucky when students trust us with their anger. We often claim that when students share with us their despair, fears, or excitement, it's a sign we have a good relationship with them, but it's rare when educators are also pleased when students trust us with their rage. And on those occasions when we choose to engage students' anger, we often squander a potential connection by attempting to tamp down their expression. We'll say, "Calm down," "Take it easy," or "Lower your voice." The message we're sending is that the conditions that inspired their anger are far less important than the way that anger is articulated. This preserves inequity as much as it silences dissent.

It's no accident that "polite society" (a.k.a., white middle class cultural norms designed to preserve dominance and restrict access to resources and power) typically frowns upon public expressions of anger. Anger can expose injustice and produce the unpleasant realization that we might be its cause. This is why we sometimes choose to shut down communication—and therefore shut down relationships—rather than engage someone's ire. Some of us are so well-trained to denounce or avoid anger that we cast all manner of similar emotions, like frustration, dismay, and resentment, as reprehensible. Doing so cuts us off from rich, nuanced information we might otherwise use to better construct relational connections and pedagogical interventions.

If we want to reverse this trend, we need to stop responding to anger with control and start recognizing it as the tip of an information iceberg. Little self-talk questions like "What can I learn from this student's anger?" can go a long way. And here's a suggestion for what to say when that angry student stands in front of you: "Tell me why you're upset right now. I want to know what happened that made you feel this way." Then give the student a minute to compose herself or take a break by asking calmly if she wants to get a drink of water before discussing matters (this also gives you time to prepare yourself to engage rather than merely react). Try it, and you'll soon see how much you can learn from students' anger and how strong your relationships with them can become.

Lecturing Isn't Connecting

Dialogue is the oxygen of healthy relationships. The give-and-take of perspectives, ideas, needs, and desires is what allows us to know the other and negotiate. But in our rush to "get through the chapter" or "prepare for the test," educators often stifle dialogue by reverting to an old and overused monological technique of teaching: the initiate-respond-evaluate method, also known appropriately as IRE.

IRE positions the teacher at the center of all talk in the classroom. Teacher asks question. Student responds. Teacher evaluates that response. Repeat. In the mind of a hypothesis-testing, question-posing, edge-exploring, meaning-making adolescent, this turn-by-turn exchange is unnatural and stultifying. It's why students are animated and engaged in conversations with peers and why they're often withdrawn and silent in class. Everybody knows the teacher is not the sole authority on all things, but IRE makes it seem like only one voice is worth listening to. This relegates students to passive roles—and we wonder why they're "disengaged"!

How to change it? Get students responding to one another. Ask open-ended questions. Use randomizers to distribute interactions throughout the room. Quit relying on the one-person-at-a-time rule. Facilitate messy and sometimes loud cross-talk sessions—it's what many students understand as authentic, meaningful conversation. And get away from the front of the classroom and sit down among your students. Talk with them. Slow down. Listen.

The Rhetoric of Care

Like kitchens, classrooms are noisy, complicated, creative, fun, nourishing, and ultimately dangerous places. To function optimally in these environments, we need to know we won't get hurt and we need to see that the people near us can take care of us.

We often say to each other that "students won't care what you know until they know that you care," and this may be true. But our students' knowledge that they are cared for depends on what we do far more than on what we say. Words are cheap. Many of our students have been let down by adults who made promises that turned out to be hollow or who said caring things but acted uncaringly. The lofty rhetoric about our care and the grand intentions we proclaim must be matched by the outcomes we produce if our compassion is to be credible to anyone other than ourselves.

And so, if we want our students to believe us and to connect with us, we have to show them—not just tell them—that we care. Only then can we say with authenticity what any struggling learner longs to hear: I got you. You can do this. I'm right here. Behind you.

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