I was asked years ago by a new teacher what matters most in teaching? I didn't even flinch - relationships I said a little louder than I intended. The new teacher said, but the piles of work and grading and understanding curriculum and... and... I stopped her gently and told her - no - relationships matter first and always.
I explained that no matter what you have looming over you, test scores, observations, parent conferences, none of that even matters one bit if you don't have relationships with your students. Real, authentic relationships. I know that all too well because my mama was a teacher - saying that seems so trivial. But she was so much more... an innovator before her time, a relationship builder, an encourager, her students knew she was their BIGGEST FAN!
She would come home at night often with big bags - not of grading or school work. NO, of laundry of some of her students that came to school dirty. She would talk to the parents and let them know she would be happy to do their laundry - granted there were 6 people in our home growing up.
Little did she realize that I was always watching, absorbing all of this. She would really reach out to the most unloved and make them feel like a million bucks. Years after she retired I was visiting her church. She sang in the choir so I didn't really get to sit with her at services but I did enjoy watching her sing ( a talent I didn't inherit ). One day after the sermon I saw her get up like she was on a mission. She wasn't headed my way which was unusual. She walked over to a girl with down syndrome that looked alone and overwhelmed. She sat with her and talked with her and introduced the girl to her friends and others within the church. The young girl had the BIGGEST smile on her face the entire time. That's what I'm talking about.
I had a student that was definitely not among the 'loved' on campus. His teacher unfortunately treated him poorly and his self confidence continued to plummet. I had him years before and reached out to him asking him if he would eat lunch with me once a week. I wasn't so sure he would as he was a troubled kid and older now. Guess what?!? He jumped on the opportunity! He told everyone that would listen that he was eating lunch with his first grade teacher. He came in each Wednesday with a smile ready to tell me all kinds of stories. I listened - - guys, did you get that? I listened! Sometimes that's all a child needs. Maybe they aren't being heard at home and I knew he wasn't being heard at school in the room he was in...sad but true. I offered encouragement and validated some things he shared. We talked about his future, his goals, his home life. If you have never had a lunch bunch consider it, it creates a less structured environment for your kids to talk to you and you get to know them better. I had one child that didn't say boo most days but in lunch bunch she would talk my ear off. Lunch bunch is just a coupon that kids can pick for a reward to have lunch with me.
I've had several students that have lost a parent to cancer, well so have I sadly. I know the good Lord put them in my class so I could be there for them. Sometimes a loud outburst of tears in class was what they needed when they wanted their mama and she had just passed away. I got it! I understood, I knew and still know the pain all to well. Those kids knew they could do that in my classroom. They are forever etched on my heart just like the Josiah's from my mom's class were forever etched on her heart.
One of the first things I do in my classroom each year is sit in a circle and do a Me bag, I do one too. We get to know each other and share things in our bag that describe us and what's important to us. I then tell them we are a FAMILY. We look out for one another and have each other's backs. Sometimes we will have disagreements but we vow to talk them out like families do. We don't tolerate unkind, hateful words and certainly don't put one another down. Sometimes we need to revisit that talk during the year - - as emotions get the best of situations for a 9 year old brain. But we do and we talk and we remember that we are family in my room. I haven't brought home laundry yet but I have attended funeral services for lost parents, baseball games and have shed tears for my students late at night when no one was watching. In fact last year in August a sweet girl I had two times lost her dad to a motorcycle accident. She saw me at the funeral service and smiled...I came with a small group from our campus. Later she said, you guys took off work to come? I said there's no where else I'd be than supporting her on that day.
There was a girl in my combo class years ago, in fact it was the hardest year of my life. It was the year my mom's cancer diagnosis and death happened. This girl was a first grader and was drawing a self portrait on the first day of school. A second grader made a comment that her drawing was bad. I leaned down and first rubbed her back and told her that her drawing was amazing and I especially liked the eyes. Then I leaned down next to the older child and told them how in my classroom we use uplifting kind words with one another. Well about 4 years ago I received a letter in the intra district mail from a middle school teacher. She sent me the essay this girl wrote about her hero. Really , me!?!? I'm not a hero...she remembered that exact incident and wrote about how special she felt from the very first day and knew without a doubt I would always have her back. She shared how she was so nervous to be in a combo class with bigger kids and how I eased her fears on that first day and throughout the year. Little did I know at the time that would be so impactful for her...guys ~ you never know... what you do or say can stay with a child forever.
If there isn't a strong, loving relationship with your students guess what? They won't perform for you...it will be virtually impossible. But once you have that strong bond which encourages taking risks and not being judged, then you will see the trickle effect of a well run classroom. Getting things done, hitting benchmarks along the way and building memories to last a lifetime. They just need encouragement with a big smile from their biggest fan, then my friends you can watch them soar. That's when the magic happens. They will want to work for themselves but to also please you their teacher, their hero. Nothing works without relationships. Go out there and make your students feel like a million bucks my friends, continue to do what you are doing even on the days you are low on coffee and patience which will happen. But trust me there will be so many more days of joyful magic than the days that seem discouraging. Hang in there and continue to be someone's hero! Happy teaching!