As a teacher, I have always been about relationships. When I was a newbie educator, I stole a move from Jeff Duncan Andrade, and told all of my students I loved them. This usually elicited weird looks, so I explained that I knew they had no reason to believe me, a White guy they had just met. So I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to prove it to them.
Now before someone comes at me sideways, I don’t leverage relationships because I feel like kids don’t get enough love. How could I even begin to judge that? I build relationships because a well-loved kid will still struggle to learn in an unloving environment. That’s the lens I come to this work through, and that has led me to a school that prioritizes relationships above all.
It’s my favorite way to teach. Build the relationship, learn a student’s goals, and then leverage that relationship to crank the nuts and bolts of that dream. The relationship is great in and of itself, but ultimately it’s a tool to improve academic performance. Sure, some kids can learn without getting to know their teacher. I’ve met them. I teach them just the same. But those kids are rare where I work. It’s much more often that I get kids who are skeptical of the whole system. Kids who are slow to open up and quick to write you off. Those kids are my favorites.
Those relationships are where the great lessons get taught. Lessons like “Intelligence is less predictive of happiness than hard work,” or “After a breakup, you win by NOT posting crazy bitter things on the internet” or “Never order the mini-pizza. It’s gonna suck.” These lessons aren’t on the long-term plan, and they don’t get assessed in traditional ways, but they often stick around long after the War of 1812 has left your memory.
“Cologne rhymes with alone for a reason.” “The tie matches the belt matches the shoes.”
How do I teach life lessons through a video conference? How do I keep the relationships present when they have to happen over text and in the lobbies of online games? Students know teachers care. But if the relationships don’t persist, did the teachers only care because they were paid to?
I get why things might lag a little. This is a strange time. Today, I am spending time with my other favorite, my daughter. She is by far the most difficult student I’ve ever worked with. I am sticker-charting and externally rewarding my way through the day, trying to approach some standard of consistency, but I cannot help but think about the consistency I’m failing to hold with my other students. Many of whom are dealing with this in a way less cozy environment.
I am privileged to be able to work from home. I am privileged to be able to afford supplies. I am privileged to be able to read and comprehend the scientific reports. I’m not being laid off. I’m not having to pay rent without a paycheck. My home is large enough to get a bit of space if I need it (as I do to write this).
We spent so much time talking about not overwhelming the healthcare system—did we stop to think about the homeless shelters that might experience a secondary wave of people displaced from their homes in the wake of social distancing? Or will this be the moment for Squatters’ Rights in the United States? There are lessons to learn from this, for sure. But I am still thinking about the lessons that won’t get taught.
Silly ones like “Don’t tell someone you can beat them up if you aren’t willing to find out that you’re wrong” or “If you’re going to interrupt my class, you need to be a whole lot funnier.” Sad ones like, “Sometimes people get old without getting wise, and the day will come where you get to decide who is and is not in your life.” Mundane ones like “Get a credit card, buy one thing a month on it, and pay it off completely.” And the ever present “No, [insert scrub NBA player] is not better than Jordan.” Those lessons happen within the context of a relationship. And as of recently, those relationships are in flux.
Teachers are rising to the moment all around me. Online learning is happening. Food is being delivered both on and off of our bus routes. Families are getting tech and gift cards and social workers are busting their asses. But this isn’t the 100-meter dash. It might not even be the mile. How do we keep our energy right for the type of consistency that young people need from the caring adults in their lives? Organizations and institutions will work to satisfy Maslow’s bottom layers. I’m trying to remind kids that they belong to a club that isn’t defined by school walls.