“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” – Dr. James Comer
“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” – Dr. Rita Pierson
These quotes are familiar to many in education. And they’re not just simple maxims.
Teachers who intentionally create a classroom environment that supports affirmative relationships with students will find that the emotional, academic and personal development needs of kids are more likely to be met and significant learning follows as a natural consequence.
Dave Stuart Jr. talks about the importance of creating your own teacher objective; a statement that articulates one’s commitment to the long-term flourishing of kids. In his book, These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most (published by Corwin). Dave shares:
Let’s face it: none of us got into teaching for the impact we can make as measured by an end-of-year test; all of us got into it for the tiny contribution we hope our work can make to the life outcomes of our students, twenty years from now. Want to know how this school year is going for me? Ask me in a few decades when I bump into this year’s students at the grocery store and find them to be middle-aged, responsible, and contributing professionals or technical workers or parents or spouses or citizens. Did my work contribute to them realizing their potential, albeit in a small, unmeasurable way?
One of our top priorities as the lead learner in our classroom should be that of building a caring community. In the flurry of activity that typifies back to school, wouldn’t it be wise to take time to plan intentionally for both explicit and implicit ways to create structures for the long-time flourishing of students?
Define Your Why
Why do you teach? Until you’re clear on why you’re going back to school, it’s pretty difficult to think intentionally about what you’re doing to prepare. There are some critical questions to ask yourself in order to form your why statement.
What do you believe about how kids learn? What about your content is valuable and how will you build excitement and authentic learning for students around that content? Based on your why statement, how will learning time be scheduled and what does the learning environment need to look like?
Here’s an example of a teacher’s why statement:
I teach to provide a safe place for students to be curious, to read widely and critically, to experiment with and express ideas, to learn about the world and its people, to discover their capacity to create, to engage in civil discourse and to envisage their learning and its influence on themselves and others.
Knowing why makes it much simpler when problems or issues arise. Knowing your why gives a solid foundation from which to make decisions about how, where, and what learning takes place in your classroom community. Won’t you take a few minutes to reflect on what’s important to you, what you believe about pedagogy and what you know is critical in the content area you teach?
Build Heart Connections
Students in our communities of learning have to know that they are seen, known, and cared for. This is the most critical and yet, I think, one of the simplest parts of building community.
When we start with the simple act of noticing kids, we begin the important work of building relationships. Again, from Dave Stuart’s book, These 6 Things:
Our students need to believe that we genuinely care about them and they tend to see this through two different lenses. First, they want to know that we care about them as individuals—that their current and future well-being is important to us. And second, they want to know that we care about them as learners—that it is actually important to us that they master our material.
Dave tells a story about a student he knew who was going through a difficult time with his grandfather. When Dave asked how things were progressing, the student was surprised that Dave had remembered and appeared to be pleased that his teacher had taken time to check in. Shortly after the conversation, the student came to Dave and asked for help in making his analytical writing clearer. This student had come to understand that Dave genuinely cared about him both as a person and as a student.
Orchestrate Moments that Transform
Once you’re clear on your why and you’re committed to the long-term flourishing of students, you can further communicate care by making the learning engaging in new and innovative ways.
Leveraging student interests and including compelling pop culture in your instruction are two obvious ways to make learning the content more appealing. The entertaining culture our kids are immersed in every day in the real world has excellent application for the classroom and can actually enhance student learning. We know from research that the brain loves novelty, and Lord knows, instruction in most classrooms could stand to cash in on the whole novelty thing.
Reading and discussing great texts is also a powerful way to knit hearts together in your classroom. When students read and talk about texts that reflect their culture, race, ethnicity and values, it generates a feeling of belonging. Likewise, when kids explore cultures unlike their own, they grow in their understanding and ability to empathize.
Typically, the early days of the back to school experience are filled with setting up the physical classroom, collecting supplies, cataloging resources and organizing classroom necessities. The classroom things that can be seen are important for sure, but those unseen requisites i.e., relationships and building community are the true critical elements of the school year.
To sum it up:
The internal work we do as teachers in identifying our values, our why that guides what we do, is unbelievably important, and well worth the time.
Taking time to connect with students, all students, communicates our care and belief in them both as individuals and as valuable members of the learning community.
Intentional, thoughtful planning of instruction that engages not only captures kids’ heads, it reaches their hearts.
Be assured it’s well worth the time.
Comer, James P., et al. Six Pathways to Healthy Child Development and Academic Success: the Field Guide to Comer Schools in Action. Corwin Press, 2004.
Kimmel, Valinda. “Five Simple Tips for Engaging Middle Grade Students.” Valinda Kimmel Consulting – Educational & Literacy Consulting, Valinda Kimmel Consulting – Educational & Literacy Consulting, 22 June 2018, www.valindakimmel.com/five-simple-tips-engaging-middle-grade-students/.
Stuart, David R. These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most. Corwin, a SAGE Company, 2019.