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Compassion Skills

Secure Students' Hearts, or You Don't Have a Shot at Their Brains

by Angela Maiers

As an education consultant, I visit dozens of schools every year. My engagement usually has an official sounding title. I conduct "walk-throughs" and "technology audits," and advise on "best practices for technology integration."

So what is the first piece of advice I offer to every group of educators I advise?

Ask all teachers -- at every grade level -- to greet every student by name as they enter the class, and then remark on something about several students in the first two minutes of class.

-- Next, commend at least five students in each class period for their contributions to the discussion.

-- Lastly, take two minutes at the end of each class to reflect on what everyone learned today.

In every school, I encounter teachers who "don't have time" for such frivolity, or proclaim that it's "not their job" to be "friends" with the students.

To this, I respond, "If you don't first secure students' hearts, you don't have a shot at their brains."

Thanks to Rita Pierson, I now have a more straightforward way to say this: "You know, kids don't learn from people they don't like."

More than 20 years ago, Claude Steele, the current Dean of the Education School at Stanford, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, "A valuing teacher-student relationship goes nowhere without challenge, and challenge will always be resisted outside a valuing relationship."

During my college summers, I did extensive clinical work with children, and ended up babysitting and tutoring the children of my professors. One day, I was leaving a class when one such professor demanded to know why I planned to go to medical school.It was in the context of a valuing professor-student relationship that I was issued a challenge that changed the course of my life forever. I was a few weeks away from completing my college degree and preparing to attend medical school.

When my first, second and third answers failed to include the words, "because I want to be a doctor," my professor told me that never before had he met a student who was so clearly meant to teach children. Just one year later, I was teaching a kindergarten class, my destiny permanently altered by one professor who challenged me in the content of a valuing relationship.

There are many more examples of educators who leveraged a valuing relationship to challenge a student, some with historic implications.

Annie Sullivan was hired to tutor a young Helen Keller, at the time an unruly deaf and blind child. Their initial encounters were challenging, but Sullivan persisted, and developed a valuing relationship with her charge. With that in place, Sullivan and Keller reached a breakthrough moment as the teacher spelled a word into the child's palm.

As Helen wrote in her autobiography years later, "I knew then that 'w-a-t-e-r' meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away."

Maya Angelou faced her own childhood barriers. In the wake of traumatic incidents, Angelou refused to speak from ages seven to 12. She found solace in poetry, and memorized the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Langston Hughes, Shakespeare and others. Angelou describes how a cherished teacher, Mrs. Flowers, convinced her to begin speaking again:

"She said, 'You don't love poetry.' And it was the cruelest thing I think she could have done. Because she seemed to be taking my only friend. She said, 'you can't love poetry. In order to love poetry, you must speak it. You must feel it come across your tongue, through your teeth, over your lips.' ... She was trying to shock me. And one day I went under the house... and I tried poetry. And I had a voice. I had a voice."

Decades later, Angelou used that voice to read a poem at President Clinton's inauguration.

A similar encounter with a teacher helped create one of the great voices of the past century. When James Earl Jones went to high school, he was functionally mute, as a result of a severe stutter he developed at the age of five.

Jones calls a high school English teacher, Donald Crouch, "'the father of my voice." Crouch challenged Jones to prove that he did not plagiarize a poem by reading it out loud from memory in class. "Which I did. As they were my own words, I got through it," Jones said. Crouch continued to encourage Jones to read out loud every day, and get involved in debates.

Rita Pierson proclaims that what students need most is teachers who, like those discussed above, are willing to be a champion for them, to love them and insist that they be the best they can be.

Value your students. Love them. Demand that they be the best they can be.

Teachers matter.


Whether she is addressing an auditorium full of educators or sitting on the floor helping first graders find their way into the pages of a great book, Angela Maiers’ message is the same. Literacy changes lives. As a teacher educator, author and consultant, Angela has spent the past twenty-two years working diligently to help learners of all ages succeed by recognizing their power as readers, writers, and global communicators. As owner and lead consultant at Maiers Educational Services, her passion for literacy and technology to discover creative ways to assist schools and organizations in meeting their learning and productivity goals. When she is not at home in Clive, Iowa, spending time with her husband and two teenage children, you will find her on blog.

See additional sources at: Secure Students' Hearts, or You Don't Have a Shot at Their Brains



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