Classes Have a “Tone”
There were just 14 students in the class, and they all wanted to be there. What a dream situation for an AP US History teacher! But classes can develop personalities, and it only takes one or two unique individuals to set the tone.
I’m a grizzled veteran teacher with over 30 years in the trenches, and I thought I had experienced most human quirks at this point in my life. I hadn’t. Simon (not his real name) was a totally new experience for me. He was gregarious and lovable, but he had extremes. He lacked almost any sense of social awareness. His hair was usually an oily mess. His teeth were encrusted with food. He looked like he slept in his clothes. And I could never get the guy to stay on topic. Oh, and did I mention that he was, without doubt, the most brilliant student I’ve ever taught?
At first I was completely intimidated by Simon. If I let him start talking about a topic, he would hijack the class. Not to mention the fact that he was so well read that I feared he would make me look like a mental lightweight in front of the other students. In a personal conversation I had with him about business trends, he quickly left me in the dust. It’s no surprise that he was accepted to the London School of Economics at age 17.
Digging In To My Teacher Toolkit
As first quarter wore on I realized that I needed to get to know this boy. If I didn’t learn how to relate to him, he was going to take over the class every time I let him speak—not that it was ever easy to keep him from talking. So I dug into my teacher toolkit, and what did I find? A realization that my student-teacher relationship skills were sorely underdeveloped. I love working with teenagers, yet I get quickly uncomfortable when it comes to personal stuff.
I was emboldened, however, by what I had been reading in my weekly professional newsfeeds. Several times a month there was mention of a new study, article or book about the importance of student-teacher relationships. I read an interview with Larry Ferlazzo where he summarized a recent study. He said that, “Relationships matter because when students see themselves as connected to the learning community, they are much more likely to engage and self-regulate appropriately (Caprariello and Reis, 2014) which, by extension, means that they are more likely to feel connected to the content and concepts taught in school.”
This helped me see my problem. Simon’s makeup was hindering him from self-regulating. He had a natural bent to take over a group discussion, but he couldn’t really relate to the other students or engage in class activities in a meaningful way. I resolved that I wanted to help this guy, but that meant digging back into that toolkit and oiling up my rusty relational skills.
Making a Connection
It wasn’t easy, and I’ll say right now that my efforts did not make Simon into a new person. That wasn’t the point, however. The real change came in how I learned to relate to this student. I found out that he had been bullied in his previous school. I also learned that his parents did not want him to pursue a passion to become an author and college professor. They wanted him to get a professional degree and take over the family business. That’s a lot of pressure for an 11th grader.
As I developed a positive student-teacher relationship with Simon, I found ways to avoid opportunities that sent him—and the rest of the class—off on a tangent. He also grew to trust me more and even listen to some of the small ways I tried to guide him. The best thing is that I grew to truly appreciate him as a person, and I had actual joy that I was going to teach him in another class the following year.
Every teacher has strengths and weaknesses, and thankfully, we don’t have to be experts in all facets of working with students. It’s helpful to understand, though, that there are some high impact strategies that all of us should be good at. One of the biggies is the effort to create a student-teacher relationship with every young person that walks into our classroom.