In my first year of teaching high school, when I first met Newman, I was completely overwhelmed with how very different high school teaching was from college teaching. He took pity on me and recommended that I devote some time each class period just to getting to know the kids and letting them have a little space to share and vent about their day. I liked the idea, but as simple and pure as it sounded, I wasn’t quite sure if I could do it well. Newman was the only one who did it in the entire high school. In retrospect, he took a certain amount of flak for it, I’m sure, because many in our school see giving even a few minutes to such downtime as a waste of a precious commodity they cannot afford to lose.
I didn’t realize it then, but Newman was essentially (and in typical Newman fashion, generously and humbly) offering me one of the key secrets to his success. Very popular and highly well-respected among students and colleagues alike, Newman understands that the most important thing we must teach adolescent students is how to be good human beings, and that starts with showing we care about each other. The other content stuff matters too, of course, but we cannot forget to acknowledge the human experience going on all around us. If we tune into it, the teaching potential increases exponentially.
For some teachers, the capacity to be relational with adolescents comes naturally. For me, it does not, but Newman has been a good mentor. I watch him, and I attempt to mimic some of his techniques, but I am also trying to adapt them to sync well within my own circle of strengths and weaknesses. A couple of years ago, the rest of the school finally caught on when faculty members were invited to attend a conference entitled “Capturing Kids’ Hearts.” Newman didn’t go, but every single thing I learned at the conference was something he had already shared with me from his own repertoire.
The major culture change at our school that resulted from that conference can be boiled down to one little thing that most teachers started doing, which is “Good Things” at the start of each class. “Good Things” is just that: the teacher simply says “what are some good things that are going on right now?” and invites students to share. Once the routine gets built into the fabric of the class, students find this to be an opportunity to ease into a new class community and take a structured break from the stresses of the day. Teachers get a chance to get to know their students in a real way and build community. Everyone gets to share a bit of themselves outside of the confines of the curriculum.
In my experience, every moment of class time I dedicate to “Good Things” comes back to me in the form of engaged students who know I care about them and want them to bring their whole selves into the classroom. “Good Things” routinely shows up as a positive indicator on my course evaluations, and more than a few students have mentioned to me that the classes where they are not allowed to open with this activity do not feel as comfortable or as productive as those that do.
It all seems so obvious now, but I was recently reminded of the raised-eyebrow response I originally gave Newman. He and I were seated in the library, sorting through our paperwork for homeroom duty at 7:25 am and doing our own version of “Good Things.” Because my recent nosedive into seasonal depression mostly rears its ugly head in the morning when we wake up, this shared homeroom time allows us to give each other an encouraging word before heading off to our teaching duties. As we were chatting, a newly hired teacher came over to us and started complaining about the professional development work she had done the day before. On and on she went, venting about how none of it felt relevant to her actual work with students. We nodded enthusiastically, wanting to affirm her keen instinct that in fact, she was not alone in her experience. We knew exactly what she was talking about.
And then she said this:
“I mean, what is all this about relating to students? What does that have to do with teaching them?”
Wow. My head jerked to a stop mid-nod. I realized immediately how much my teaching philosophy has changed since I have entered the domain of the adolescent and realized just how much relies on me making a connection with my students in some small way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s possible to connect with all students. It is possible to teach them something despite the lack of a connection, but a connection helps, and the connection you make can come in a variety of ways. Kids can respect your knowledge, be entertained by you, be inspired by your passion for a subject, feel comfortable because you remind them of someone they know, or be intrigued by you because you’re not like anyone they’ve met before. The connection can come as a result of something you do or something you don’t do; it may be something you don’t even know about or can even control.
Any connection, however, felt by the student can lead to more investment in your class simply because they’re willing to listen and try things your way. I know a lot of different personalities in the faculty who are relating well and making it work for students in myriad ways. I can also empathize with the new teacher because she’s told me of her struggles with her students. They are familiar to me, but my own such struggles have decreased the more I’ve worked to implement a real culture of caring in my classroom.
In the spirit of “Good Things,” here are some from this week that I hope you enjoy.
- This week we celebrated funky hair week at my school. The boys’ swim team shaves each-other’s heads once a year before a big meet, but for a few days before the shave, they endure crazy cuts. (Don’t worry; it’s not required or a form of hazing. At least one or two kids refuse each year, but most gleefully partake.) When the troops arrive in class, I staunchly support the ones who creep in wearing hats and tell those who are begging to see their heads to pipe down unless they’re willing to shave theirs next. Those who want to show off receive our admiring attention; “Good Things” takes a little longer as we review their creative caps, exhibiting everything from monk style bowl-cuts to nothing but hairy ear-muffs to patchwork madness and spiky eruptions of bleached beauty. By the end of the class, the hat-wearers usually remove their hats voluntarily and receive due praise for their bravery. I sometimes commiserate with the story of my own unplanned head-shaving in college, and eventually, we even get around to the lesson for the day.
- I advise a group of students who attended a conference about race and are now working to bring some change to the school culture as it pertains to issues of race. After school today, they presented their ideas to the entire faculty. All week, I had worried that they weren’t doing the work to put it together, and I fretted behind the scenes but also resisted doing it for them so as not to take it over. I didn’t quite know if they’d pull it together, and I felt like my own butt was on the line if they failed, but watching them take turns speaking and working through their nerves to deliver their message made me feel very, well, proud, as well as eager to keep working with them.
- On the mothering front, Free and I stayed awake for an hour past bedtime tonight because we were both enraptured by her library book, one of the Clementine series, and simply had to finish it. At one point, I got up to turn my phone off because it was beeping, and she screeched “Mom! Don’t stop! I have to know how it ends!” Elsewhere, she interrupted me to tell me “Mom, I don’t know if you know this, but every story has a problem, and by the end of the book it gets solved, so I know you’re worried, but we’ll have an answer soon.” The English teacher and mother in me were both eating it up.
- On a health note, I’ve started a regimen of St. John’s Wort and have successfully completed two days of (pre) Fab Ab February workouts, so things are looking up all around.
That’s enough from me. What good things are going on with you?