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August 2017

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Foster a Culture of Rich Relationships

To invigorate a true love of learning, relationships are critical! They’re the cornerstone to any successful classroom. However, I’ve witnessed educators placing relationships in the back seat for different reasons. Relationships require commitment and genuine interactions, they can’t be forced. Some students are easier to cultivate relationships with than others.

Oddly enough, the romantic comedy How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, causes me to think about interactions with students who push back on us and how we go about fostering meaningful relationships with them. In the movie, Andie Anderson (played by Kate Hudson) works as a resident writer for the “How To” section for Composure magazine. She decides to write an article on How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Her idea is to start dating a guy and then doing everything in her power to drive him away. Ironically, Benjamin Berry, (played by Matthew McConaughey), was simultaneously dared to prove that he could make a girl fall in love with him. Andie and Benjamin cross paths and become the victims of each other’s plans. Audiences are humored as Andie does everything possible to push Benjamin away while he demonstrates unconditional admiration to her face. Behind the scenes he’s completely flabbergasted by her, but refuses to give up the challenge of making her fall in love with him. Ironically the scenario is similar to those we face with children who lack trust.

Each year I head into the new school year having already heard the rumors about “those” kids. No matter how much we attempt to avoid this, it happens somewhere along the way. It may be in a conversation in the hallway or out at the playground. I’m grateful for fellow teachers who want each year to be a fresh start. As a teacher, I’m bound and determined to cultivate an authentic relationship with each child and am driven to ensure that it’s successful.

Relationships and trust are pivotal components in any successful classroom.

If our goal is for students to excel, we need to put a spotlight on relationships in addition to engagement and instructional strategies. Relationships foster the connections that allow students to be ripe for learning. From experience, I understand that educators may feel as though they’re constantly being tried by certain students. I’ve been there myself! As educators we have students who run the gamut from requiring multiple strategies to grasp content, need support to self-regulate, or those who demonstrate a spectrum of challenging behaviors. We also bear the weight of understanding their home lives and the undeniable challenges they face outside of school.

While educators tirelessly strive to meet and exceed the needs of all students, we also devote time to connecting with parents to cultivate relationships, and work collaboratively to provide the support the child deserves. In the meantime we attend meetings to ensure that we’re doing everything possible to support students to be successful. The work we do is vast and intricate. The teaching profession is not easy. It requires us to demonstrate strength, compassion, empathy and maintain the energy to continuously give our best day-after-day. It’s no wonder that teachers fall back on the ease of doing what they’ve always done! It’s less taxing and requires little planning.

The demands and mandates may leave us feeling less patient or distracted from fostering authentic relationships with students and their families. The feeling may be more pronounced if we have students who really push back at us. As a teacher myself, I understand how much we need to be on our toes each day. Together we can overcome this because I promise you, it’s worth every ounce of effort! 

Unlike the situation in the movie, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Children do not arrive at our door with a predetermined agenda to sabotage the relationship that has yet to exist between themselves and their teachers. However, I know some of you feel this to be true. Together we’re going to examine how to shift this. The reality is that while we go above and beyond to connect with kids, some will continue to push us away. The harder we try, the more they push.

This is the point where teachers either:

  1. Throw their hands up and walk away with frustration (and some hasty comments under their breath).
  2. Get in a power struggle with the child (children will always win this, cut your losses!)
  3. Send the child to the principal’s office with a follow up email or phone call that they’ve already tried everything.
  4. Accept the challenge with open arms because they enjoy the process of breaking down the walls and understand that it takes time and unconditional love.

Our students deserve adults who will demonstrate compassion and unconditional love for even the most challenging behaviors.

Children who lack trust push harder on adults to test their love limits. As their teacher, are you going to surrender and prove that once again no one can love the child? Or, will you be the one to be there for them with unwavering support? This tests us as humans, but teachers who are committed to shifting classroom culture grasp the power of being available for students unconditionally. I wholeheartedly believe in you as a change agent!

As my own children transition to different teachers throughout the years, my biggest hope isn’t necessarily for the most innovative teacher, but one who is going to form an authentic relationship with them and appreciate them for who they are. If they are placed with a teacher who fosters relationships and is innovative, we’ve hit the jackpot!

Every child deserves adults who will relentlessly foster relationships with them.

In the fall of 2014, I encountered one of the most difficult situations regarding cultivating a relationship with a child in all my years of teaching. On the first day of school I greeted a girl (I’ll call Nora) just as I did all the others. With my knees bent to be at eye level with her, I looked in her eyes. I held out my hand to shake hers and greeted her by name. Here Nora was, just 9 years old. She looked me dead straight in my eyes. With slightly lowered eyelids and dark circles under her eyes, she appeared to be less than impressed with me. Nora let out a deep sigh, slumped her shoulders and refused to shake my hand. Her eyes drifted to the floor and she walked past me in an apathetic manner. Of course, I had already heard her story, but I was determined that this school year would be a blank canvas for her to paint her masterpiece.

Nora entered our classroom and gradually looked around at the other kids. She selected a spot on her own at one of our tables. My initial thought that was that due to past experiences she knew she’d be excluded by others. However, I quickly learned that since she lacked social skills, she had no desire to be with other kids and preferred to be alone. You may be thinking that deep down she wanted others to include her, but after forming a relationship with Nora I’m certain she could have cared less at this point given her situation. All school year Nora pushed my love limits to test when I would give up on her. She employed a variety of tactics from doing the opposite of what was requested, to behaviors that completely sabotaged collaborative team work. She made gradual progress in all areas, but would often regress following breaks as kids often do. Never once did I show her anything but fairness and understanding.

Unconditional Acceptance Transforms Relationships

On the last day of school, the same girl who wouldn’t shake my hand on the first day, hugged me so hard prior to stepping on her bus. After she let go, she looked up at me with tears in her eyes, and lunged back into me with an even tighter hug. I could feel her body deeply sobbing as she inhaled trying to control her breath. Prior to this moment, I already had tears streaming down my face as I let go of all my kids on the last day. However, seeing this reaction out of Nora caused me break down. This beautiful child, who had such a negative reputation, made an enormous breakthrough at this moment by letting out these emotions. My thoughts swirled, had I done enough for this child? What would her summer be like? How will she do next school year? Would her teacher love her and be there for her unconditionally? How would this year have ended differently if I had given up on her? It pained me to watch her go.

A month, week or even a day prior to this moment I wouldn’t have predicted it. While Nora made progress throughout the year, she maintained a tough front. We can never underestimate the impact we have on individuals. I share this story with you because we’ve all had a “Nora” or will have one at some point. Our impact is far reaching and it’s our choice on how we will effect each child.

Quite honestly, throughout the school year I often felt like Benjamin, from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. However, I knew it wasn’t really the case. Relationships don’t just happen. If we head into class each day and engage our students in learning without authentic relationships, we’re missing the boat. Educators need to be intentional about fostering connections and employ every strategy that exists. It’s simply that important.

Foster relationships by:

  • greeting kids each and every day
  • Knowing when their sports and activities are and attending or following up with them to see how they went
  • Sitting by their side through difficult times
  • Listening
  • Calling home to share with their families how amazing they are or share their accomplishments
  • Be silly, have FUN with them
  • Providing clear, supportive feedback
  • Working with them one-on-one on work they want or need support in
  • Having a flexible schedule to adjust to unpredictable needs (inviting them to have lunch with you, or allowing them choice time with you and a friend that they select)
  • Connecting with families on sites such as SeeSaw to share pictures of their child, their work, and positive comments
  • Being responsive to when they need to decompress
  • Engaging them in learning that best meets their needs and incorporates their passions

There are endless ways to foster authentic relationships with kids. As we head into this new school year, I challenge YOU to be the ONE who makes a difference. When you feel overwhelmed by mandates, take a deep breath, look into the eyes of your kids and remember that you may be the one person who they carry with them through life. The words you say, the compassion you show, the patience you have for them doesn’t go unnoticed. Make this school year phenomenal, and kick it off with transformational relationships!

Children do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.

-Teddy Roosevelt