Building community and authentic relationships in schools
Blog from Kristan Julius, Founder of The Everyone Agreements
When perusing various texts offering words of wisdom for beginning teachers, I repeatedly come across one “pearl” that should be tossed back to the oysters. In new teacher how-to handbooks, education blogs and beginner’s resources, there are often questionable instructions regarding the teacher’s relationship with students. “You’re their teacher, not their friend”, “Establish your authority strongly to get their respect”, or even the awful advice “Be mean ‘til Halloween” are among the directives given to our new colleagues. And I think this misguidance needs to be corrected.
While those of us in the profession of education will agree that our primary role is not that of “the buddy” (see my blog post, “Who Controls How We Behave?”- July 2013), developing meaningful and genuine relationships with our students is an essential part of our job. If we believe we will and should command our students respect solely because we’re older, standing in front of the class and perhaps cracking a metaphorical whip, we are misled as to our most fundamental role as mentors.
Mentor is a character in Homer’s Odyssey, whose identity the goddess Athena assumes when she advises Telemachus to stand up to his mother’s suitors and to seek his father, Odysseus. From this evolved the modern term of mentor as a person who shares his or her garnered wisdom and knowledge with someone less experienced. But digging deeper, The Online Etymology dictionary (www.etymonline.com) cites the root of mentor to be the Greek mentos, meaning “intent, purpose, spirit, passion.” And certainly this is something upon which to build a relationship with your students!
Erroneously, the school of thought that requires teachers to keep their emotional distance from their students seems to be founded on past and poor practices. While I do recall some teachers with whom I didn’t have any connection – Miss Braden, a cranky 5th grade teacher who regularly kept the entire class in for recess because of the misbehavior of one student, or Mrs. Schnitt who berated Joe Frumm daily in our third grade class for not paying attention- it was only because they abused their power over us. All I remember of third grade are Joe’s slumped shoulders as he made yet another trip to the principal’s office.
The learning that has stayed with me was acquired in classrooms and professional settings from mentors who knew me as an individual. As a student, teachers like Matt Coyle, Dave Maiers, John Yount, and Donald Graves shared their passion and spirit with me. As a teacher, Phil McCormack, Susan Stengel, Dianne Gossen, and Rhona Polansky, to name just a few, were committed to support me in growing as a learner. And a critical ingredient that all these influential people contributed to my learning process was that they conveyed the sense we were making the learning journey together.
So here is some alternative advice for fellow educators new to the profession:
1) Be yourself. Children are the most intuitive beings among us, and they will know and care about when you are being genuine.
2) Share what’s important to know about yourself with your kids. I introduce the topic of the “care and feeding” of Ms. Julius every year to my class- revealing upfront information about my own quirks:
Please use the inside of your elbow to cover a sneeze.
“Stupid” and “shut up” are bullying words; please don’t offend us by using them.
Live the mantra “We are active learners.” Share your thinking!
3) Be playful. Yes, it’s more than okay, and is an important part of every school day.
4) Be a learner, and share your experiences with your students. I have been learning German for several years now, and it is a humbling process, but I love it. When I imagine having to learn in another language, my admiration for my ESOL/EAL students knows no bounds.
5) Listen, be honest, admit and fix your mistakes – we all make them- and let your students know how much you enjoy sharing a year of learning with them, every day. If that isn’t being a friend, I don’t know what is, and it seems to be the most appropriate role possible.
Relationships and learning go hand in hand. Or perhaps it’s step by step? According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, learn is derived from Old German and Dutch words that mean to “follow or find the track” and to the Old English “laest” which means the sole of the foot. I love the idea that we, as teachers and students, are connected on the same path sharing the quest to become more knowledgeable.
There’s no need to bring your broomstick to the classroom – ever! Embark instead an odyssey together with your students – one that includes lifelong relationships and the shared adventure of purposeful connections and learning.