Recently, one of my students was unexpectedly dismissed in the middle of class. As he gathered his belongings, we hypothesized what the reason for his dismissal might be. During his walk to the door, I joked, “Maybe you won the lottery! Don’t forget who your favorite teacher is!” He glanced at me for the briefest of seconds and then gave his parting shot as he walked out the door.
“It’s not you.”
Amidst the chorus of “OOOOHHH’s” from the rest of my students, I dramatically leaned back in my chair, feigning pulling a dagger from my chest and playing up my heartbreak. Some of his classmates laughed uproariously or predicted that he would be “in trouble” when he returned. Others vehemently assured me that I was indeed their favorite. They were surely convinced my ego must be irreparably bruised and that I would surely hide under my desk and cry during lunch.
Being the favorite was an indication of my worth
Later on, when telling this story to both my colleagues and family, I began to reflect on the fact that at the beginning of my career, this interaction would have truly devastated me. Why wouldn’t I be your favorite? Are my lessons not engaging? Am I not (gasp!) funny? Do you not LIKE me? (Evidently, this fear is not an isolated phenomenon, as evidenced by a video I recently saw on TikTok where a middle school teacher falls across a desk, devastated that one of her student’s had said that she was not their favorite as Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” swells in the background.) As a fledgling teacher, I equated being deemed the “favorite” as an indication of my worth as a teacher and a measure of the quality of my classroom.
The forging of relationships is far more important
Now, twenty years into my career, I am older…and hopefully a little bit wiser. In my journey as an educator, I have slowly realized that it is not being designated as the “favorite” that is important, but rather the forging of relationships and making students feel heard and valued. Much like being a parent, the importance is not on being preferred above all others, but rather on creating a place where a child or student feels valued, supported, and safe.
This interaction reminded me of the powerful TED Talk given by Rita Pierson titled “Every Kid Needs a Champion.” In this phenomenal speech, Pierson recounts a disturbing declaration from a colleague who asserted that she was not paid to LIKE her students. She was there to teach. Her students were there to learn. End of story. Rita’s retort to this revelation was short and to the point. “Kid’s don’t learn from people they don’t like.” She asserts that if you don’t try to form actual relationships with your students, all of your efforts will be for nothing. Children need champions. An adult (or adults) in their lives who believe in them wholeheartedly. A safe place to grow, learn and make mistakes. That is what I strive to be for my students.
“You were the teacher who talked to us like we were people”
Right before the pandemic hit, I dined out with my husband and friends. A former student approached me. “Mrs. J? I don’t know if you remember me…” I did and told her as such. She was part of my very first 8th grade class when I made the switch to middle school. She caught me up on her life and career, noting that she and her classmates were now starting to turn thirty. As we were saying our goodbyes, she stopped me. She then said, “My friends and I still talk about you sometimes, you know. You were the first teacher who talked to us like we were people, not just kids. You liked us…and we knew it.” As she walked away, my eyes welled with tears. My husband leaned over and said, “And THAT is why you do what you do.”
He was right, of course. The fact that seventeen years later this young lady remembered how I treated her and her classmates is the reason why I continue to be an educator. It is the reason why I will continue to forge connections and form relationships with my students. I will ensure they know that they are valued, heard, and safe. I may not always be their favorite, but I will forever be their champion.
What are ways you form relationships with students? Share in the comments below! Plus, 4 Ways to Build Relationships During Online Learning.
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