So we’re well underway in the second semester with our new superintendent at East Butler, Mr. Sam Stecher. I think I’ve previously mentioned that I really enjoy working with him because we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to managing student success. That is to say, we both feel that positive student-teacher relationships are a huge predictor of having a well-managed, efficient, engaging classroom. I think that this goes doubly for language teachers because a good portion of our job is to learn personal information about our students through our target language. On top of that, I work in a very small rural school. I have 3 classes that consist of one student. (To be fair, two of those are independent study, but still.) My biggest is 19. I’m the only Spanish teacher, which means that by the time my students get to Spanish 4, we know each other quite well.
But Mr. Stecher encourages us to go one step beyond just being nice in the classroom. He encourages the staff to be in the hallways, and he himself is very visible around the school and makes himself very approachable to the students. He asks us to complete the missions from Mission Monday that focus on promoting positive contact. Another thing he has talked about at various PD meetings is the idea of acts of intentional kindness. Acts of random kindness are nice, he says, but they don’t create a long lasting effect. It is repeated, intentional acts that will foster the cultural growth we’re looking for. Working with teenagers can be hard – after all, they are people-in-progress and sometimes are not very nice – but for some of them, we’re the only nice adults they’ve got for role models.
It is with these acts of intentional kindness in mind that I have (somewhat accidentally) started positive relationships where I won’t see the outcome for years. During one act season, I had to go through the library on a Friday after school to get some stuff out of the attic for our play. I didn’t know at the time, but I tromped right through our elementary HAL (high ability learners) group work time. The HAL group competes in a robotic competition and also does a presentation on problem-solving. Since I felt bad for invading their workspace and figured having students show me their learning would be way more interesting than grading papers, I asked some students to explain to me what they were doing. (Teacher thought: if they can sufficiently explain to me what they are doing and how they are doing it, they clearly understand the material and learning happened!)
What I saw was awesome. I had all these elementary students – who I don’t even know – clamoring to tell me about their robot. They were so excited to have a visitor who took a genuine interest in what they were doing. Then I visited the production group, who was using iPads to create videos to explain their inventions for scientists in the desert. This group, in particular, was very outgoing. I ended up not getting any of my grading done, but at the time I was just enjoying talking to these kids. I didn’t realize I had laid the foundation for my teaching future.
The next week, I happened to need to go into the library again. As soon as I walked in, the production group shouted my name and one girl even ran up and gave me a hug. High school teachers: how often are your students THAT excited to see you? I felt like a rock star. So ever since then, I have made it a point to say hi to these students if I see them waiting to go into art (which is down the hall from me) or in the lunchroom. I also don’t have 7th or 8th graders, but I try to say hi (with their name if I know it!) when situations allow for it. Why? Well, not just because I’m nice, but my niceness has an intention: I am building a relationship with these students.
You see, if I have this student – we’ll take the one who gave me a hug, she’s a 3rd grader – and I am friendly and kind to her for the next *6* years before she theoretically enters my classroom as a freshman, I have 6 years of positive feeling and goodwill built up. That is a lot of dollars in the relationship bank. If I can make positive contact with even 5 kids in each grade before they get to me, that’s about 1/4 of the student body who will already be on my side the moment they step through my door. That is going to ultimately make my classroom a fun, easy-going, friendly place with way less effort on my part.
In other words, right now I am putting in little bits of change into my relationship banks with these students. A high five here, a kind word there, a friendly wave and a smile. It doesn’t take much. After collecting interest on those relationship banks for years, there will be plenty of kindness to withdraw when they eventually enter my classroom as Spanish learners and I have to ask them to do things they don’t want to do. Not all of us are lucky enough to work in a K-12 building, but are there any ways you can make positive contact before students land in your classroom? How can you put spare change into those relationship banks?