George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Most Important People in the Room

The Most Important People in the Room

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A Student Featured in a Crowd of Students

I’ve learned that the most impactful form of discipline isn’t a reactionary approach, but a proactive one. A mentor teacher of mine once told me something that I think about every day:

“Always remember: there are more important people in the room than you.”

In my first five years of teaching, I haven’t thrown a student out of my room yet. Don’t misinterpret: I’ve come close. I’ve been lucky enough to figure something out pretty early on in my career about the way I want to teach. I certainly don’t think I have found the way to promote a culture of respect and authenticity in my classes, but the very least, I’ve figured something out that works for me, something that’s at the root of who I am as a teacher and what I think the profession of teaching should be all about.

I work every day to build and maintain positive, meaningful relationships with my students. It’s a long, hard process that often takes a while. I’ve noticed that when mutual respect is achieved between me and a class of high school students, great things can happen. Powerful conversations take place. The best part? The need for “discipline” disappears. You just don’t need it. There’s no room for it. My classes are respectful of me and interested in what I have to say simply because I reciprocate.

When I was in high school, I respected the teachers who respected me back. I took interest in those teachers who took interest in me. When we reminisce on the “glory days” of high school, I’m sure we all can think of a teacher or two who was more interested in hearing their own voice than relating to teenagers. It’s funny, because we often forget that students (really at any age) are much keener than we presume – they know which of their teachers are interested in establishing relationships, and which aren’t.

As teachers, we show up at work every day for one reason: our students. We are invested in them: their well-being, comfort, and learning rest and rely on the learning community that we establish in our classroom every day. It’s our responsibility to give those students a safe place where they feel valued, accepted, and cared for.

Students need fewer people in their lives telling them “this is how it’s supposed to be” and more trusted adults saying “this is who you are right now, and thats okay.” I try to meet my students where they are when they walk in the door, but not forgetting about where they could be going.

At some point during any given school day, I’ll hear or read about an initiative that doesn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable, but perks up my ears. Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that new ideas or policy in education are important, and promote and foster change in the “business” of what we do. Common Core is a good thing. New policies and procedures in educator supervision and evaluation are good things. It is important for the culture of education to continue to evolve, shift, and change based on the world in which our students live. This is a fact. Things are changing, so teachers must too.

But, with that being said, one thing that shouldn’t change is our commitment to the social and emotional well-being of our students. This is at the center of what I do.

High school, like many of us can remember, is a weird time for a lot of reasons. Spoiler alert: most teenagers are more worried about who they are going to sit next to at lunch than their English homework. Instead of condemning this mindset - only continuing to fulfill the role of being the mean adult looking over your shoulder - it’s important for trusted adults (in and out of school) to recognize that adolescence is a critical point in a young person’s life. Neurons are firing on overtime trying to make sense of the stresses of seeking a place to fit in. Of course, social pressures and mores take precedent. It’s natural.

As teachers, we have to make a choice: We can either ignore this behavior, putting it off as just a “phase” and playing down the social-emotional needs of our students; or, we can recognize that this stress has a direct impact on student learning and develop and implement effective strategies that teach our students how to cope with this very normal time. The strategy I’ve chosen to focus on is creating and maintaining positive and meaningful relationships with my students, and when I leverage these relationships to promote a culture of understanding and respect in my classes, amazing things can happen.

This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Chris, you are so right on that students' social-emotional needs are at the heart of what we do and the way to support this is through relationship. "Meet them where they're at" is so powerful and surprisingly uncommon: rather than expecting students to meet us where WE want them to be, it flips the script when we start with the actual students who walk through our door. And when all is said and done, "discipline" seems pretty irrelevant when we are in true relationship with our students. Great post, thanks for sharing!

chrisgosselin's picture
Secondary English Teacher, Digital Learning Specialist outside of Boston.

It is uncommon, isn't it? I want to challenge the way we approach how we train teachers. The students' needs (no matter what they are) should always come first. Thanks for the comment!

Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA's picture
Katie Schellenberg, JD, MA
Advocate, Lawyer, Teacher and Founder of Beyond Tutoring

Chris, love the central message: you are not the most important person in the room. I think this, of course, extends beyond the classroom and into life. When we start with how can I serve you and how can I enhance you, great things happen.

chrisgosselin's picture
Secondary English Teacher, Digital Learning Specialist outside of Boston.

I love the phrase "how can I enhance you." The process of education is inherently reciprocal... BUT, as teachers, it's our responsibility to model and share these mindsets with our students.

Tony's picture

i am not agree with Katie, i think Teacher is trendsetter in the classroom who is also responsible to continuously fetch-up innovative ideas to overcome the hurdles.

R.E.M.'s picture

In a Utopian society, this would be ideal. Having said that, as an educator, am I supposed to ignore all the "F-bombs" my students drop from time to time? Do I ignore the five students who I have to say, "Please stop talking over me and your peers when we are having a class discussion"?

Today I had to politely ask three students to stop having a rather loud "private" discussion. I asked them three times before I told them to shut their mouths. Okay...maybe I did not say "shut your mouths" but the point is simply this - I am the teacher. They are the students (children). When I am attempting to model a concept for the students, at that specific time I AM the most important person in the classroom.

A student's personal drama has no place in my room. The student can go talk to a trained professional (school psychologist, guidance counselor, or trusted administrator) not share it with their friends during class time.

Enough of the enabling, hand-holding of students who do not show any respect to adults in the school environment. If I tell a student that they must turn off their Chromebook while we are learning how to craft the perfect essay response for the exam in June, and that student tells me "no" and continues to play games on their computer - well, there's a problem. When approaching that student again by saying, "Look, you really need to join the rest of the class because this is important" and the student says, "I can do whatever I want" then I become the most important person in the classroom for those students who happen to be struggling and paying attention - I write a referral for the guilty party and pray they receive an appropriate punishment for disrupting the valuable class time for the other students. I wish I could buy into your philosophy, you seem like a teacher who wants to change the dynamics in the classroom for the good of everyone, but students who do not care for rules, common courtesy, and common sense do not deserve my respect. They must earn it.

chrisgosselin's picture
Secondary English Teacher, Digital Learning Specialist outside of Boston.

REM, thanks for your response, and I respect your opinion.

In order to develop a respectful environment in your classes, I believe that the first step is to consider where each of your students are when they walk in the room. This is responsive teaching. I hear you - we've all had fair share of uncomfortable situations, and of course, there are moments when we need to take the lead.

However, even though there may be issues arising that may not promote a positive learning culture, I believe that the students are always the most important people in the room.

As teachers, we are here to serve our students, and it is our responsibility to meet them where they are at. It is our responsibility, our duty, to make a meaningful effort to build positive relationships with our students.

Of course, if a student is being disruptive to the point where there is insubordination, they need to be removed from the learning environment, but only in a way that reminds them that they are being removed because their actions are disrupting the learning. More importantly, it's our responsibility to figure out and address the stimulus of the behavior, not just be a knee-jerk teacher that feeds into their negative attitude.

It's all about setting the tone, and I'd be curious as to how you do this in your teaching.

R.E.M.'s picture

I set the tone by greeting each child at the door. I then enter the classroom after the late bell has rung and take attendance. As I call out each student's name, I say "Hey, (insert student name) how are you?" Or "A METS shirt, really? Do you know I am a Yankees fan?" And to those students that return after a prolonged absence, whether it be health related or just skipping school, I say, "Great to see your smiling face again. We missed you."

I walk around the room and make my lessons relevant to my students life. I include humorous, most of the time self-defacing humorous stories that sets a loose, safe, and comfortable atmosphere.

I'm considered by many peers and students alike as one of the most approachable teachers who takes the time to find what personal interests my students have. As a matter of fact, I'm known for my research project: The Bucket List. I have students research topics of their own interest and have them share their dreams, goals, and ambitions with the class to get a better idea of who they are. What makes them so unique.

What I can't, and will not turn a blind eye towards, is disrespect and lack of effort. I'm paid to teach. I think I do a great job at what I do. I do not need any accolades from anyone as far as that's concerned. I teach my students (at times I refer to them as my kids) how to live a life worth living. Take responsibility for their actions. Be an advocate for their own education when they need extra help. I do not simply teach English, I teach through English.

chrisgosselin's picture
Secondary English Teacher, Digital Learning Specialist outside of Boston.

It sounds like you are lucky enough to have established a clear philosophy of teaching and you have figured out how to truly live up to it. Thanks for sharing!

R.E.M.'s picture


Thank you. I know we both want what is best for all students, yet we have the few students who really know how to push our buttons from time to time. I like your approach, I truly do. I just wish that it worked for me as well after treating the students with kindness and genuine concern. At times I truly feel like a doormat where certain kids just wipe their feet on me and abuse my kindness and grace. I have avoided writing discipline referrals countless times based on what I know about the student's home life. School happens to be their "safe zone" and while I do my best to ensure it is for them, there are those whom decide to vent their frustrations and take it out on me.

I hope you have a very successful school year!



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