One of the first lessons I teach my students is about my life. I tell them how I got to this moment and all the significant things that happened along the way: good, bad, ugly, and embarrassing. By the second week of school, they already know that my birth father abandoned me as a baby, that I hated to read (and didn’t) until I was an adult, that I have struggled with anxiety throughout my life and still do today, and that in college I swore to myself that I would never become a teacher. I also share with them how much I love my job, my school, and them—already.
I’ve met several teachers who would call my candidness with my students unprofessional or off-task, but I couldn’t disagree more. I firmly believe that any teacher who wants to have a greater impact on their students—and ultimately the world—than simply passing on content knowledge owes it to his or her students to share a piece of his or her life with them. Students learn from those they trust, and allowing them to see into your life beyond the powerpoints and study guides is a surefire way to make a connection with them and build a trusting relationship.
Creating a community built on trust in which every student believes they are valued is one of the most important responsibilities a teacher is given, and this work begins the moment our students enter the classroom on that first day of the school year.
Here is the reality—many of our students are lonely. Many come home to empty houses because of their parents’ work schedules. Others are competing against tablets and smartphones for the attention of their loved ones. Others may have their parents’ attention but don’t trust them enough to open up. I teach eighth grade, and already so many of my students have been hurt by someone they once trusted and as a result, have put up walls to protect themselves from it happening again.
But this life cannot be lived on the proverbial island. We thrive in communities. One cannot excel at everything, but he or she does excel at something. And that excellence must be shared with others in order for us all to collaborate and bring real change and meaning to this world. Along with algebra and figurative language, our students must also be taught the value of community. And just like a student will struggle to write without first seeing model texts, our students won’t know how to connect without it being modeled by us, the teachers, first.
Along with being willing to share about my life with my students, there are four other rules I live by in order to promote healthy community within my classroom starting on day one of the school year:
As much as our students appreciate hearing about our lives, they want us to hear about their lives even more. There is little that is more affirming than having someone actually listen to your story, and so many of our students are longing for that affirmation that we can easily give. At the beginning of the school year, I always plan a project or activity that allows the student to tell me and their classmates more about themselves. As a history teacher, we begin the school year answering the question: What impact does studying history have on our lives and our world? The students complete a project called “The History of Me” in which they present about their life and what has made them who they are today. After seeing your candidness in the classroom about your own life, the students will be more willing to share about their own life. They can present about their family, personal values, interests, significant life experiences, and more, and they can do it in whatever format they want (speech, presentation, video, podcast, artwork, etc.) Not only is this a great opportunity for you to learn more about your students’ lives, you also learn about their strengths in the classroom by allowing them to choose how they present.
The only way this becomes a meaningful assignment, however, is if you actually listen to what the students have to say. Take notes. Ask questions. Find things you have in common. Make meaningful comments on their rubric about the things you found most interesting or the areas in which they excelled. Showing a genuine interest in your students from the very beginning will lay the groundwork for a meaningful, trusting relationship during the school year.
Learn students’ names
This sounds obvious, but there are many implications with this that are important to consider, especially in the first days of school. A name makes up so much of a person’s identity, and so I take names very seriously, starting from the first time I take roll call. I am careful to make note if a preferred name differs from the given name on my roster, and I also write names out phonetically as they respond, especially when I worked with a population that included several English Language Learners. Finally, I study the spelling of each name. I know whether the student is Caitlyn, Kaitlin, or Katelynn. Seems insignificant, but the look on a student’s face when she says, “Whoa, you actually spelled my name right!” affirms the value I place on this practice.
And I totally get it. My son’s name is Maddux, and while I know misspelling is never intentional, I can’t help but feel as though the teacher doesn’t really care to get to know my child when I receive a note from school with Maddox on it. (I even cringe as I type “o.”) I feel that way as a parent, so I can only imagine how I would feel in the student’s shoes after spending day after day with someone who doesn’t even care enough to learn the correct spelling of my name. The details are important.
Admit your mistakes
No one is perfect. But in a society where putting an expiration date on learning is the norm and academic reporting comes in the form of A, B, C, D, and F, many students come into our classrooms afraid to make mistakes—and who can blame them? Seeing teachers not only make mistakes but own up to them is imperative in a classroom that promotes healthy community. I will undoubtedly make spelling errors, confuse amendment numbers, and misread current events in my classroom, and when I realize it, I will fully own up to my mistake and laugh. I want my students to see that even the “expert” in the room makes mistakes, so mistakes shouldn’t be feared.
This practice goes beyond content mistakes, however. I have mistakenly threatened consequences to a student for talking during an exam, for example, only to have other students speak up and say, “But he really wasn’t talking, Dr. Goff!” It is embarrassing, but I refuse to shy away from my mistake. I always apologize and tell them I was mistaken, and my willingness to apologize not only sets an example for how they should deal with their mistakes, but also humanizes me and builds trust between my students and myself. I have been in classrooms with teachers who would rather quit than admit a mistake in front of their students, but I only see that resulting in student resentment toward the teacher because of the impossible standard that is set. Plus, the students already know you made the mistake. You might as well own up to it. We all know the first few days of school are always hectic, and you are bound to make a mistake at some point. Take that opportunity to publicly own up to your mistake, and the students will gain a new respect for you early on.
Set and maintain high expectations
I never expected a Disney movie to shape such a significant piece of my teaching philosophy, but it undoubtedly has. Disney’s Zootopia delivers one of the most accurate portrayals of the power of expectations. In the movie, Nick, a fox known for scamming and swindling, explains that as a child he wanted to be part of an organization dedicated to service, much like the Boy Scouts. However, the other kids rejected him because he was a fox, and foxes were bad. This had lasting effects on his life and likely led to his life of crime as an adult. Although this is a children’s movie featuring talking animals, the message has incredibly strong implications for our practice as educators. Students will live up to the expectations you set because they eventually start to believe what you think of them.
Along with setting high expectations, we must also hold our students to them—no matter what. Just as I discipline my own children when they don’t meet my expectations at home, I discipline students who choose not to meet my expectations at school. It never fails that the students who have needed the most redirection during the school year (the ones the other teachers warn you about) end up being the students I’ve been the closest with, and that’s because, in the end, those are the students I’ve reminded most often that they are capable of great things, that they are worthy of better, that I’m on their side, that I love them more than they know. Teachers, often our most difficult students are the ones who need to hear those things most.
When you remind students that you refuse to accept anything but their best—both academically and behaviorally—you are also telling them that they are capable of great things. When I allow a student to turn in an incomplete assignment, I am admitting that I did not expect them to complete it in the first place. Students will work to fulfill the expectations you set for them, so if you expect them to be disrespectful, they will be. But the opposite is also true in both behavior and academics. If you expect them to be respectful or complete the project or collaborate with others, they will. Obviously this doesn’t happen instantly. This is something that evolves over time after you’ve proven to the students that you truly commit to the things you say and aren’t just feeding them empty, beginning-of-the-year motivation that you don’t actually believe. But it is imperative that you set these expectations on day one.
While there is no one, specific formula for a successful beginning to the school year, I have found that as long as everything you do is done with the intention of building trust and community, your efforts will not be wasted. We have been given such a unique opportunity to shape the lives of young people. Ultimately, my hope is that you never forget the enormous potential and responsibility you have as an educator. Embrace this role and shower your students with love this school year.