It’s been almost three years since the last time my job title was classroom teacher, and I miss it terribly. Like many teachers, my students were “my babies.” This, of course, is in addition to the two who call me mom and wake me up before the rooster crows. In my classrooms, some of my students considered me their school mom, which helped build a connection that opened many doors to learning.
It wasn’t hard for me to develop meaningful relationships with my students. In fact, I’d say it was the easiest thing for me to do each year. The initial connections were superficial, but over time, I grew to learn about their dreams, desires and secrets. While there’s no standard procedure for creating these bonds, there are several ways to ruin it before it begins.
No pressure, right?
Contrary to some vocal critics’ thoughts on teachers, I believe that most of us care for our students and want what’s best for them. However, sometimes our desires can come out in ways that alienate students, especially if it casts their goals or culture in a negative light. This is where I think having strong connections can help. When we move past knowing our students’ names and academic strengths and concerns to a genuine interest in their personality, goals and development, we unlock a new level of compassion.
Thinking back on my relationships with students revealed three key acts that helped me create lasting bonds with them—ones that persist years after their graduations.
- I chose authenticity with them.
- I valued student voice in our class.
- I empathized with their experiences.
I’ve written about these three key acts before and offered fellow teachers some personal insights into my classroom successes. I approached every student-connection with my authentic self and never shied away from apologizing if I made a mistake.
I recall one time I wanted to get through to them how great college could be, and I dismissed non-college plans inadvertently. After reflecting on that, I asked them to forgive me if I’d hurt them by placing my own version of “success” for them over theirs. That was a major development in our teacher-student relationship because I’d shown humility.
In addition to being genuine 100 percent of the time (because kids can tell when you’re fake), I gave them choice and amplified their voices in my classroom. There was never a need for me to exert my power over them or prove that I was in charge. After all, it was my name on the door. Instead, I actively sought to make our classroom one that encouraged students to speak up and select parts of their curriculum. I wanted them to care about the content so they could recognize why it would matter later. Not only did this make the learning environment much more academically engaging, but I learned so much about them through their work.
It’ll be 10 years in 2018 since I taught my first group of eighth-graders and I can still tell you about what their dreams were and parts of who they were. I saw so much of myself in each of them and truly wanted to show them all of the possibilities life could bring. I felt similarly every year I taught.
Ideally, I would’ve been able to reach every one of my students, but I couldn’t, and that’s okay. We must be realistic even in our idealist views. Some students simply won’t want a deeper bond with us, and we should never force it. The best relationships are those that come to be organically. What matters is that I offered each of them the same opportunity to grow with me.