For the past few weeks, I have been wondering why the loss of a former student has hit me so hard (please read this post as it will help make sense of this one). Andrew was a great kid.. but I have taught many great kids… so what was it about Andrew that has made this loss so difficult for me?
A week ago, I went to visit the family and while I was there, I realized why I was so close with this group of students and their families: time spent together.
Since I wrote the post on my thoughts on the passing of Andrew, I have connected, both personally and online, with a number of students and families from that group. As a high school teacher, I generally taught over 200 students in a year; through conditions set out that were beyond my control I taught many of the students in this particular group 3, 4 and 5 times in science math, and physical education. In addition, through helping with the rugby program, I spent many hours with this group so by the end of their grade 12 year, I had become extremely close with not only the students, but also the families. I am proud to say that I had taught in an environment with this group that Sean Grainger discusses in his post, “We Need Schools Where Everybody Knows Your Name”. I had spent more hours with this particular class than any other students I had ever taught and due to this time together, we had developed trusting, caring relationships that have never been matched in my career as an educator.
As stated, one of the key reasons that I taught this group so much was beyond my control and not due to my choosing; I was a new teacher and was given a variety of new preps to teach each year. As I gained experience as a teacher, I started to teach more of the same things each year and, in effect, taught most students only once; the close relationships formed with some students were more a result of coaching rather than teaching. High school teachers involved in extra-curricular activities (athletics, clubs, arts, etc) often have very close connections with students because of the time spent together. I remain in close contact with a number of “kids” whom I coached during their high school years.
As we, in BC, attempt to move toward increased family engagement and a more personalized learning experience for our students, my question is: how can structure students’ high school experience so that teachers can spend more time with students? Elementary school teachers have about 22-30 students for a whole year; as I have worked in both settings I have observed that the relationships formed with students and families in elementary schools are generally closer than those formed in high schools (I realize there are many exceptions to this but when relationships are formed with students in high schools, it is usually due spending more time together). Some elementary schools in the US take this even further and “loop” teachers so they will have students for 2-3 years in a row. Middle schools create “pods” in which teachers are with students for more than one subject (ex. math and science). How can we move toward more personalized learning if teachers are continually given a timetable that includes over 200 students? What are ideas that schools are using in high schools to help teachers and students to spend more time together (rather than just the one class)?
The majority of teachers want to form closer relationships with students and their families but are often scheduled to teach hundreds of students each year. How can we alter the school structures to encourage an environment that allows teachers to form the desired caring, trusting relationships with students and their families?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
We teach our kids to be weary of strangers then put them in an environment where they are to instantly trust and accept the adults around them. Relationships take time to develop and some never will. My first few years of teaching I was linked to a group of boys that were, let’s just say, school challenged :). I did everything I could in my power over three years to get those 6 boys graduated. They trusted me in a system where most adults had let them down repeatedly. I watched them walk the stage and stood in the back proud. I had parents thank me when usually they were fighting the school to keep their child enrolled. In a system where you are a new face to so many different people to have that one person that only wants the best for you is crucial, especially in a world where mommy and daddy may not be storybook.
In my new position I have the potential to have my boys for three years. I am part of their world as they are a part of mine. If I didn’t have that compassion or attachment what would drive me to care about going to work or being with them for 10 months out of twelve.
It human nature to want to maintain healthy relationships and even in grade three the BC education system agrees as it is an IRP goal.
Coaches definitely have the advantage in the relationship building department. We spend so much time outside of school hours with our students and are able to really get to know them and their families.
You are right, it is easier in elementary and middle school to spend more time with students than it is in high school. I have always said that while curriculum is important, I would rather my students remember that I thought they were important.
In a lot of ways, I think it is up to the individual teachers to reach out and spend time with students. Whether it be in sports, other extra-curriculars or just walking around the lunch room and hallways during breaks, it is important. I know that many won’t do this and that is a shame.
Thanks for this post, it gave me a lot to reflect upon.
Students just want to be heard, and staff members seemingly just don’t have time to listen. Some well intentioned conversations with students little by little throughout the early part of the school year opens the door for students to pursue us and share with us and dream with us.
Most of the high schools in my area are 9-12, so a very short time really to establish relationships and a sense of belonging. Often a very different experience compared to the number of years a student might attend an elementary school. Some may think that it is okay for less personal relationships at the high school level, but I have seen how important it has been for my own girls to have connected with at least one teacher each semester. Hopefully that can happen for all kids and it would be great if schools can find time and strategies to consider this more consistently.
Teachers/schools need to get to know students for who they are and not what they do. Looking past a behaviour into the person behind it all and accepting that person as the special person that they are goes miles. Too often we get caught up in what people do or don’t do, and not who they are as beings. This is especially true with the students who don’t fit the “norm”. Believe that EVERYONE is special and has something to contribute and find ways to make that happen. Severe behaviour children are probably my most favourite students to teach because I am often one of the first to look beyond their behaviours to the person underneath it all. School culture has to do that across all levels, and no, it’s not always easy.
Relationships are central to our effectiveness as teachers. Like in any relationship, the ability to empathize, listen and make connections is paramount. I have been involved in schools that have tried “advisory groups” and “homerooms for 5 years”. While moderately successful on the whole, it was the teachers who took the time “to care” that established the deepest relationships.
Teachers who teach 200 students have a tough job. I’m always humbled by how hard they work. Those that are most effective always find a way to make those ever so important connections.
In some countries teachers eat lunch family style with their students. I know teachers like their lunch break but in my last teaching assignment there was a pretty toxic atmosphere in the teacher break room during my lunch period. To avoid it, I took to eating in my room, sometimes with several other staff, sometimes with kids. Kids always preferred the quiet of the classroom to the lunch room. Imagine, good food, conversation-conducive atmosphere– that’s a break.