This week, for just about the first time all year, I saw T get excited about something. T is one of my reading and social studies students who has been "a tough nut to crack". He is usually sort of quiet, even sullen--and does just enough work to get by. It has been hard to get to know anything at all about him--he does not seem to find enjoyment in much of anything. But this week, I got a glimpse of something he cares about and it has given me a whole new perspective on T and his life. We were walking from one building of our school to the next, when I heard T's excited voice: "Mrs. Luebbert, Mrs. Luebbert can we stop and look at that?" His voice was so urgent, I stopped and said, "What is it, T?" It was trash and recycling day in our neighborhood, and T had spotted an old aquarium tank someone had put out. "The tank, can I see the tank?" "OK, but what for?" T informed me he had a turtle, and that the turtle needed an bigger tank. He was thrilled at the possibility that he may have found that tank. Unfortunately, taking a closer look, we realized one side of the tank was cracked, so it would not work. But, I learned something important about T--he had a pet that he likes to care for. On the way into class I asked him a little about his turtle and he was happy to tell me. This short exchange was the first real personal thing I knew about T outside of school--and it gives me an "in"-- subjects he may be interested in, or something to talk about or ask about when I see he is in a bad mood or getting ready to fight.
This small incident led me to reflect on how important it is to teachers that we have a chance to get to know our students. It makes a great difference in the lives of students and in the life of the classroom if teachers can form relationships with their students. It saddens me that this time is less and less available to us as we think about testing and documenting results all the time. Not all things that help a child's education are quantifiable in numbers and test results. We used to have an "advisory" period--time that we did attendance while kids read independently or got ready for the day. This was a good time to talk to kids and to find out about their lives. Now, however, we have a "do-now" activity that has to be kept track of for the region. Instead of getting ready for classes, or discussing a problem or issue with teachers and peers, kids now have to do another activity that will be graded. I've had kids tell me all manner of things during advisory ---they range from just showing me photos of things they are proud of--family members, get-togethers, etc..., to telling me they had a fight with a sibling or parents, informing me a family member is ill, or even that they were upset because a brother was "going away" (a common euphemism for prison).
I always figure that my students tell me things because they need to, and it is my job to comfort, advise, or sometimes just listen. It also helps me teach my students better when I know them better. I can give them slack the days they need it and tough love the days they need it. If I know them , I know what might get them interested in a subject, or what they might like to read. Teachers need time to foster these relationships--and in our crazy "Race To The Top" world--we are losing it. Of course, most of us still carve it out somewhere---in the walks between classes, on the way to lunch, and after the bell rings. But what all the education reformers need to realize is that kids need trust and relationships as much as they need math and reading and science and social studies. Letting teachers foster relationships will lead to students who flourish in other areas as well.