A powerful quote. It came from one of my students and there were a lot of similar responses when I asked students, “What are your initial thoughts on the first day of school if the teacher passes out the syllabus and starts teaching right away?” Now, I just didn’t walk into class one day and ask this. I was asked by our district high school math coach to lead a session at their Summer Math Institute about building relationships in the classroom.
While planning the session, I initially found it difficult to articulate what I do in the classroom to build positive relationships with my students that impact the learning in my classroom and the overall vibe of the class. I then realized that I set the tone on the first few days of school (which hopefully explains why I asked my students the question I did). I don’t pass out the syllabus, I don’t talk about grades, and I don’t talk about the content until the following Monday (we start school on a Wednesday). I’ll work on a post about my first days of school soon.
I think the first few days of school are crucial for building relationships, but it can’t stop there. I think we, as educators, start off the year with good intentions about building relationships, but then the grading, the emails, the meetings, the discipline, and everything else kind of hijacks those good intentions. I struggle with those things too, but I try to stay focused on the most important part of my job, and it’s not my content. It’s the kids! What that means is, I…C.A.R.E. It’s an acronym that I think embodies everything I do to build relationships with my students and make my classroom a safe place for them all year long.
Courageous. Now, we aren’t facing villains like Darth Vader, Magneto, or Voldemort on a daily basis in the classroom. The courageous I am referring to is the teacher who takes risks in the classroom. They aren’t afraid to fail. They are focused on how big of an impact this could have on their students and the journey to get their impassions them. You may think students are oblivious to your courage and risk-taking, but they’re not. They’re smart and intuitive. They have friends who were in your class the year before. They’ll know if you are doing the same thing you’ve always done or whether you’re trying to get better. If we keep doing the same thing year after year and stop learning, we are settling for average. There is nothing courageous about being average.
Attentive. There are plenty of things to distract us each and every day in the classroom. It’s easy to get distracted, but when we do, we lose focus on the group of kids sitting right in front of us. We can’t ignore them. When we are attentive, we can see that student who is just a little off or the student who has a smile on their face for the first time in weeks. I had a student whose mother passed away about halfway through the year. Coming back after winter break was tough for him and while he was in my class every day, once a week I would make sure I actually had a conversation with him and make sure he was doing okay (there is no good way to ask how are you doing in a situation like that, but I think he knew I had good intentions when I did). He wrote a letter to me at the end of the year and he said, “You were the only one who kept checking in on me and made sure I was okay. You never stopped caring.” First, I was overcome with joy because everything I did meant something. Then, I was also saddened by the fact that I was the only one who kept checking in on him. These kids need us. They come to school and they need us to be attentive to their needs. It can’t just be about the content. It has to be about the kids first, and then the content.
Real. Now, we’re all human, but think about this in terms of being honest and real. Every day we go to school with thoughts and problems that are weighing on us and so do our students. I think we do our kids a disservice when we don’t share some of those thoughts and problems. Now, obviously we can’t share every problem with them. There are some common problems and thoughts (like the loss of a loved one, general stress of life, car breaking down to name a few) that we can talk about with them and I think we should. Some students don’t know how to handle grief or stress constructively. If we are REAL and talk about some of the problems we are having and how we are constructively dealing with those problems, think about the impact that could have on our students. They need to know we are human too!
Emotional. Bet you didn’t see that coming. You were probably thinking empathetic or some other care synonym. Now, there are a lot of ways to look at the word emotional. I simply think that we need show our emotions. We need to get excited when the student we have been working with for days on a concept, finally gets it. We need to be remorseful when a student is hitting a rough patch. We need to be passionate about everything we are doing. If you do this, I can guarantee students will reward you with effort and excitement. There are times I get so geeked about something I have planned that when the bell rings I can’t help but start talking (practically yelling) at 1000 words a minute and using my hands to describe every detail. Those are the days students know that something awesome is happening. We can’t be monotone zombies at the front of the room anymore. They deserve more than that.
Now, this will not solve all of your problems, but I guarantee if you become more aware of how you C.A.R.E, it will start to make a difference in your classroom. Students will be excited to come to your class regardless of the content you teach. They’ll just want to be there because you are there and they know you C.A.R.E about them.
I mentioned that it all starts on the first days of school. Just like any other interaction you have in your life, the first impression you make sets the tone for all future interactions. So, we can’t take the first days of school for granted. Below are some things I shared at thesession I led earlier this summer that you could do help set the tone in your classroom and start getting know your students on day one.
Like the students said, “No teacher is going to connect with me if they just read the syllabus to me and start teaching the first day.”