My ninth graders write about failing math tests, getting cut from the soccer team, and auditioning for the lead in the musical only to be cast in the ensemble. They write about feeling insecure about their weight, the width of their nose, and the birthmark on their face. And they attend classes with an array of teachers who have differing notions of where they should sit, how often they should study, and what grade they deserve.
There’s a chance for teachers to bridge the divide between the adults who seem to have all the answers and the students who are still figuring things out. When my students feel like they know me, they’re more actively engaged, seek my help outside of class, and are more receptive to my suggestions and ideas.
John Hattie says that a “positive, caring, respectful climate in the classroom is a prior condition to learning.” So how can we reveal even a little bit of ourselves, in order to create this climate and make a connection with our students?
My students know that I cried a lot in elementary school, so my primary goal when I entered middle school was to not cry at school. They know that now, as a teacher, I find it excruciatingly painful to hear my lesson plan critiqued by my supervisor, with the commentary that perhaps it doesn’t make quite as much sense as I originally thought. And when I showed students my model book-talk video, I asked if they also heard a bit of lisp, and didn’t it look like I have a lazy eye? They laughed, and assured me that neither was true.
My students know that in some areas I actually do have all the answers. I know the answers to all of our tests, I can crush a literary essay, and I can recite several poems from memory (which never ceases to impress).
But they also know that I don’t know the difference between sine and cosine or a polar and a conic, and I’m not sure which ions are positively charged—or why that even matters. They know my sixth grader watched 13 Reasons Why on Netflix before I realized the 13 reasons why I probably shouldn’t have let her. And they also know that I was always the last kid chosen for a team in PE, so if they toss me a dry erase marker it’s unlikely that I’ll catch it.
Share Your Stories
I sprinkle stories throughout my classes about my older son’s college applications, my younger son’s football team, and how my daughter and I sing Britney Spears songs in the car. My students know that I don’t like to cook, and that Atticus Finch is my fictional husband.
My stories are brief, but they offer insight into who I am as a person and a glimpse into my life outside of school. On the last day of school, when we played “two truths and one lie,” my students knew immediately when I was lying. I asked, “How is that possible?” One student quickly responded, “Because we know you!”
Why This Is Essential
“Studies on thousands of students show that learners who are better socially connected to their teachers and classmates are significantly more engaged and achieve better than their less well-connected peers,” notes Hunter Gehlbach, an associate professor of education. When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, acknowledge our imperfections, and tell our stories, we show our students that we are, in fact, more like them than they may imagine.
As we let ourselves be known, our students will likewise reveal themselves, and thus our connection grows. These relationships are built gradually through a mutual exchange of ideas, questions, and stories about our lives.
We can seek to know our students through ice-breakers in September, by greeting them when they arrive to class, and by asking them questions when we notice their varsity jacket or their name on a field trip list. And when a student shows up on crutches, of course our conversations begin with “What happened?” and “How long?” These personal exchanges often spark deeper conversations, embolden students to ask more probing questions in class, and increase overall participation.
And these interactions build trust, which better enables me to give students critical feedback—to tell them the truth even when it’s not easy to hear. My students listen to me because I listen to them. They don’t know me just as their teacher—they know me as a person.
In a faculty softball game, I am my struggling readers. When calculating grades, I am my reluctant writers. In so many ways, I am them and they are me. If we can meet them where they are, we can assure them that they’re not alone as we cultivate relationships that foster deep and meaningful learning.