Becoming the Teacher My Students Needed Me To Be

By Sonya Barnes    4/30/2020

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I remember the days of kids not wanting to work, or fake working when they didn’t understand and avoiding asking for help.  They would do as little work as possible to just get done as quickly as they could.  I remember calling home to parents or students to be hung up on when they heard it was me or sent to voicemail so they wouldn’t have to talk to me.  Those moments truly made me an unhappy teacher.  I questioned everything about my practices and wanted to do better, sometimes even considering a departure from the profession entirely.

We hear so much about building relationships with our students, we were shown videos of students and teachers high fiving and fist bumping, with glistening tears in their eyes about their love for each other, but not enough on how to do that.  Sure, I’ve had a few students I’ve connected with over the years and am still in touch with as adults. But it’s rare. And, honestly, I’m not even looking for that with every student. But I would like an enjoyable professional relationship with every student that is positive and progressive in their learning.  It’s not too much to ask, is it?

By happenstance, I stumbled across the how this year.  I found a way to define it, break it down into reproducible steps and saw it succeed-although not 100% because, well, what is ever 100% in life? 

My school does PLC’s a bit differently.  Our principal lets us choose our area of growth to focus on, let’s us do the leg work on it and share about it in a video at the end of the year with our colleagues—and we do so enthusiastically.  It’s not very often that your mandatory learning for the year gets to meet you right where you are and be about something you want it to be about.

With carte blanche, my team decided we wanted to explore the area of Growth Mindset.  It has become such a buzz phrase in education, but, other than defining it, we hadn’t really gone in depth of how to expand on it since it started. We wanted to explore this and see if we, already happy, bubbly people in a positive work environment, could find a way to do it better. And, to be perfectly honest, we were the newbies at the school still learning a new job, so wanted something we thought would be pretty easy.

We had to start by posing a question, so here is what we posed:

Once that was done, we started digging into the research element. I won’t bore you with all the details (unless you are interested, then check out the snip or comment below or email me and I can send you some links!), but we found out some amazing things. 

The sources–if you can’t read them, I can send them

We were surprised to learn that growth mindset not only impacted student learning/teaching environments but could impact whether or not dietary changes or attempts to quit smoking would be successful. Whoa. Game changer. 

A coworkers response to a research post

We realized we needed to do more than we already were, though. Especially since our project required us to make changes and implement them to get data.  We already used the “positive sandwich” approach in student feedback on assignments, but we stepped it up. In fact, when we stopped being negative at all, we saw a whole new level of connection with our students and parents.

You see, by creating a safe and welcoming environment focused on learning and not perfection, learning truly happened. We worked hard at the old proverb of treating others the way we wanted to be treated. We didn’t like being told what we did wrong, we liked hearing what we did well and what areas we could improve on and how.  So, if we, as professional adults, didn’t like negative feedback, why on earth would our kids?! How would they learn positive feedback and growth mindset if we didn’t live it?!

A student that hadn’t worked in weeks would start a conversation apologizing but would quickly relax when asked if they and their family were okay, or about some challenge they’d been struggling with the last time we talked, or how I could help them get the outcome they wanted.  I stopped telling kids to redo work they messed up on, but told them what I liked, what they could do to earn back points lost and gave them the choice of doing it—and most did.

By telling them I wasn’t worried about the past since we couldn’t change it, but that I was worried about how they could succeed right  and in the future showed them that they are the most important thing, not something they can’t change, I changed their view of the task. It truly became one of those teachable moments.

You know what else happened? Parents and students answered my calls, texts or emails. They knew my goal was to help, not judge, not make them feel bad, not point out the flaws. The students would call or text for something they didn’t understand and needed help with. And no matter how obvious the fix should have been or that I had a hundred other kids ask me THE SAME QUESTION that same day, I never made them feel bad. In fact, no matter how silly the overlook may have been, I’d downplay it as being something that was okay to not know since it may have been different than what we had known or just pretty hard to figure out. 

To truly embrace building those relationships, you’ve got to treat students as people and as equals, regardless of rank or responsibility in the infrastructure. You must respect their life and where they come from, what they are going through and be willing to walk through it with them to the other side.  You need to compliment them, celebrate their successes, and work together to solve the not YET successes.  Will it work every time and with everyone—I doubt it.  Who can make that kind of guarantee that isn’t selling something for 3 easy payments of $19.95 plus shipping and handling?  But I can guarantee that you have no chance of seeing success if you don’t try.

So, start looking at how you interact with students, parents, coworkers, your own family—people.  Look for opportunities to focus on positives and celebrate successes or turn negatives into positives in the making.  You’ve got nothing to lose, but everything to gain, and you may find the payoff is in more than your day to day teaching interactions.