Posted by Nancy Gardner on Monday, 01/05/2015
We all have routines at the beginning of the teaching day. These may include a cup of coffee, an important email or phone call, a walk to the office to sign in, or a final preparation for a lesson. We greet students, the bell rings, we say the pledge, and the day officially starts.
These aren’t the moments that keep us in the classroom year after year. The tug is much more subtle than that, and often hard to define.
Instead, we remember those special times in class where something made us laugh, or cry, or reflect on our own advantages as we understand some of the baggage our students cart around. We celebrate when students discover the love of learning and the rewards of hard work.
These narratives are often shaped by the trust we establish in our classrooms, trust that we create through relationships. Sometimes we are so bogged down by the routines of the day that we forget the power we have in our classrooms—and how our words and body language can make or break a student’s success.
After teaching for almost 30 years, I can remember many moments of classroom serendipity. But the most profound example of the importance of establishing trust has to be Amber’s story. I don’t remember what year I taught her, but it was before cell phones and emails.
I had a difficult time establishing trust with Amber. She was defiant at times, and she seemed to resent the fact that I cared about my students as people. For instance, I often call students at home when they are absent to make sure everything’s ok. Most of my students love this, but Amber once remarked that “teachers shouldn’t waste time on that sort of thing when they should be teaching.”
Amber was never absent—and I soon found out why. The school counselor told me that Amber lived with an alcoholic father. No mom around.
No wonder she came to school everyday. It was her haven. And not trusting adults in her life? It totally made sense now.
I kept this information tucked away in my mind (and heart) to help me establish capacity and trust with Amber. Never giving up on her, I continued to have high expectations for her and to hold her accountable for her work. She seemed reluctant, but I kept at it.
Finally, I made a little headway. One day after class, Amber handed me a slip of paper with a phone number. She said. “If I’m ever absent, here’s the number you need to call me. Don’t call the one the school has.”
I immediately wrote the number in my attendance book so I wouldn’t forget.
The day before spring break, Amber had her first absence of the year. I called the number she had given me and got an answering machine. I told Amber we missed her and sent her wishes for a happy spring break.
When Amber returned after break, she said, “I got your message.” I could see a tiny grin on her face, but I tried not to make a big deal about it.
A few weeks later, my students began preparing their Senior Project presentations for community members. I suddenly found myself worrying about Amber—particularly her long, blue hair. Although the color didn’t bother me, I was afraid the panel would judge her speech harshly simply because they couldn’t get past the blue hair. I knew I needed to talk with Amber, but I didn’t know how.
One day, Amber was standing near my desk, and I took a minute to really look at her—past the hair, the piercings, and the insecurities. Her beautiful skin and eyes really struck me, so I asked, “Amber, do you know who Brooke Shields is?”
She shrugged and replied, “Kind of.”
I told Amber who Brooke was and said, “Your eyes, skin, and mouth really remind me of her.” Then without even thinking, I asked, “What is your natural hair color?”
Amber said auburn, and I replied, “Wow—I bet that’s beautiful with your skin and eyes.” I wasn’t trying to win her over—but something inside me realized that few people probably took the time to see her natural beauty, both inside and out. And I was certain no one had ever verbalized it.
The very next day, Amber’s hair and eyebrows were back to their natural, beautiful color. I didn’t make a big deal out of it in front of the class, but I made sure to privately tell her how pretty she looked.
A few weeks later, Amber nailed the Senior Project presentation. Best of all, she was proud of herself--and her newfound self-confidence.
Teachers often forget how easily our words and actions can affect children. It’s scary how powerful that is. Turning a kid’s life around in a positive way…..or negative. Teaching involves so much more than simply teaching subjects. We teach students, and we become their coaches, mentors, and cheerleaders. When we show students we care about them, not just as students, but as humans, it builds trust. When that happens, the students seem to work harder because they believe in themselves. Why? Because someone else does.
Amber’s story? Serendipitous, for sure. A little frightening, but very profound. Actually, it is a story for all teachers who work with students. Amber taught me that teaching isn’t just about grades and evaluations related to subject matter, but about the influence and relationships we have with students. It’s a mighty powerful one that we need to treat with honor and respect. That’s a lot more than a story about blue hair.