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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

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New Era: Teacher As Coach

When colleagues have entered my room, at first glance they thought I wasn’t there. I recall the bewildered look of one administrator who I worked for as he scanned the room thinking I had left it unattended. Typically one of the student leaders in my room will notice and point them in my direction. You see, as a coach I’m beside my learners as I question, reflect and provide feedback.

Conflicting Titles

While I view myself as a learning coach, my current title reads as “teacher.” I’m hard pressed to identify a “teacher” who fits the description below from the Merriam-Webster online Dictionary.

teacher noun: a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects.

First Known Use: 14th century

Definition of TEACHER for Kids:  a person who passes on information or skill

I interpret this definition of teacher as someone who can stand, speak, demonstrate, and ta-dah! Learners will absorb the knowledge. We all know this isn’t the case. It seems crazy that we are using a term from the 14th century simply because it’s the way it has always been. No longer are we a person who passes on information or a skill and we do not behold all knowledge. In the 21st century our focus has shifted to facilitating student learning while coaching students in diverse ways and to support them to reach their full potential by empowering students to take ownership in their education. Learners need to be equipped with the ability to collaborate, think critically, create and communicate.

Shifting

The art of teaching has transformed over the years and while we recognize it, we tend to hold onto familiar and traditional terms that are no longer fitting.  In our schools, it’s critical that we facilitate learning as coaches who utilize formative assessment while providing a loop of feedback, assist learners in setting personal and team learning targets, contribute and are accessible to assist in reflection, and encourage learners to move beyond their comfort level of learning to support them to be future ready.

As we examine the graphic of the Teacher Continuum we can see the progression. Consider the term “coach.” When I hear the term coach I envision someone beside me who is encouraging and supporting my effort, analyzing and reflecting along with me on where I can improve, as well as noting what I’m doing well. This reminds me of Notre Dame’s head football coach, Brian Kelly’s, coaching philosophy. As players make mistakes, he pulls them to the side to provide direct feedback without emotion so that the players remain confident in their abilities with a growth mindset to step back on the field to accomplish their goals. This is contrary to how many football coaches approach their players’ mistakes.

We need to be cognizant as educators of our own demeanor so that students can maintain confidence and develop a growth mindset. The feedback loop is critical as it allows learners to grow uniquely based on their specific needs and continuously refine. I’ve found value in making sure that my facilitation of learning is diverse to meet the needs of all learners through thoughtfully planned mini-lessons and small groups, since there’s no approach that is one size fits all. We need to maintain the role of coach at all times while remaining mindful of student learning needs and focus on visible student engagement in their learning.

Student Leadership

In my classroom we take a proactive approach to learning in order for me to successfully facilitate as a coach. From day one, learners are identified as leaders in our learning space. I explain that while they may not feel like a leader yet, they soon will. As coaches we need to set the stage for learners to grow into leadership roles. This provides more of an opportunity for “teachers” to transition to being a coach and lessen the amount of teacher driven instruction.

As the first month progresses learners begin to grasp that my role is coach and therefore we have a lot of shared responsibility. I’m able to be a coach simply because students are empowered as leaders in our learning space. When their partner is off task, they check in with them and redirect. If students have questions, they ask one another and are allowed to move around the room to seek others’ ideas. This is modeled, practiced and feedback is provided in order for fluid interactions and transitions. As the year progresses, students begin to take further ownership to maneuver the physical learning space to meet their needs and they take initiative to ensure that their time is used productively.

Community and Structures

Shifting to coach places leadership responsibility on learners. By providing structures within a supportive community, students become trusting to take risks and confident to lead their peers. Our community is fostered during the first week and then enhanced all year through community building structures. We also use Habits of Mind and The 7 Habits of Happy Kids structures from The Leader in Me to cultivate a community where learning can be synergistic. When learners are empowered and grasp how to function as a community it allows ample time for me to connect as a coach to be beside the learner.Learners benefit from both teacher as coach and student leadership. They go hand-in-hand to cultivate an authentic community environment where learners take ownership over their choices, learning, and develop the ability to lead their peers with empathy. I’m confident that in our learning space students are not only cognitively engaged in exploring, researching, and learning, but also developing skills to be independent, critical thinkers. I could not coach as effectively if our learning environment was developed based on teacher ownership.

Coaching Opportunities

Inquiry based instruction, guided reading, math talk, PBL, and open exploration within makerspace provides ultimate opportunities for coaching learners. As we coach learners individually or in teams,  they engage in collaborative conversations around content with one another by explaining their reasoning. They practice listening to the perspectives of others and develop a deeper understanding around the content while simultaneously sharpening communication skills. We need to model and then coach collaborative conversation intention

ally in order for learners to engage in authentic and purposeful conversation. Meanwhile as students engage in being coached, they begin to transfer the coaching skills and utilize it with one another.  For me, this is when I feel enlightened. After all, we want to support students to be proactive in their learning and develop self-efficiency.

Pioneering

Each of us has the ability to shift and make improvements in the way we currently “teach” or coach. As pioneers in education we need to anticipate change because nothing stays the same. As the future continues to evolve we must think on our feet, be flexible, and prepared to adjust. By stepping into the role as coach our understanding of the learner grows to new heights. We can then further retool instructional strategy and refine student learning targets to meet the needs of each individual. Automatically my mind shifts to seeking, “then what?” There will always be a next step as we pioneer forward. I’ve shifted from teacher, to facilitator, to coach. As societal needs change and new careers evolve within our economy, it’s exciting to ponder the thoughts of my next role in the classroom to support students in their journey of college and career readiness.

I dedicate this post to my closest thought partner, Michael Bostwick (@m_bostwick), who takes the time to provide insight.