Much has been written by myself* and others about the powerful impact on motivation, behavior and achievement when teachers form positive connections with students. Yet until I became familiar with the work of Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, I had difficulty identifying the key ingredient towards forming these connections: teacher vulnerability. Trained as a school psychologist where life has a lot of gray, I would often get frustrated with some teachers who seemed rigid and unyielding. Not surprisingly and with few exceptions, these educators struggled with their most challenging students. They were inclined to see things in the context of having many students in a class and if some didn’t want to learn, it wasn’t fair to the others to take time away from them. They weren’t going to invest their time in disenfranchised students when the consequence was giving less attention to the “good kids.” I often got a knowing shrug along with a verbal or more frequently non-verbal, “I don’t have time for that.” Yet in my mind, I would often think, “how don’t you have time for that when these students are already taking up considerable instructional time with their distracting behaviors?” How is it ethical for an educator to write off any student? If able to get outside ourselves and our comfort zone, what possible good does giving up on these kids do for all our futures?
The Power of Authenticity
Connecting with tough kids is actually fairly easy but it requires considerable courage for most people. For a variety of reasons, many people are either unwilling, unable or both to reveal who they really are. In particular, showing our flaws feels risky. Most of us hide our true selves behind some pre-defined role of how we expect a good teacher to be and we then try to act accordingly. Unfortunately, tough kids in particular quickly sense inauthentic behavior and reject it. They are hyper-alert to insincerity even from afar. Since most are insecure, they need emotionally strong adults who offer honest and genuine interactions, whatever they may be. With the exception of coming across fearful and intimidated by students, they need to see and experience us as we are including our joys, worries and frustrations expressed respectfully but directly. They need to hear feelings with limits from real people, such as:
I am so angry right now at your disrespectful behavior that I feel like exploding but I will try really hard not to because somewhere I am thinking that you must be very unhappy to act the way you are. I hope after class you will let me know what is going on with you and for the remainder of class you act in a way that you can feel proud of.”
They need expectations clearly communicated:
1) I love to see how much you want to share, but please raise your hand.
2) I want you to talk to me and tell me how you feel and what you want rather than giving me dirty looks, slamming the door and not doing your work. Will you do that?
They need teachers who are determined to not give up on them because deep down these teachers believe in them or know they must, in ways they have refused to believe in themselves:
Your behavior is unacceptable and not worthy of who you really are. If I did something to upset you, let me know and I’ll apologize. I didn’t mean to. If it’s something else that’s upsetting, let me know after class. I can tell you there are plenty of times that I feel upset about things that happen to me and it helps to talk to somebody about it.
Difficult students in particular need to know that we have feelings, concerns and uncertainties and that we are not perfect. Developing strong personal relationships is like making small regular deposits in a bank account that may seem insignificant at first but over time accumulates to produce wealth. Further, the deposits need to be real. All the counterfeit money in the world isn’t enough to buy a bus token. You can’t b.s. your tough students. They can see right through it so don’t even try. If need be, work on developing a touch of ‘multiple personality disorder’ so you can genuinely convey with your toughest students messages consistent with your desire to not have them throw their education away:
As upset as I am right now and perhaps as unhappy as you are, I hope you can find a way to stop your misbehavior so that you can stay in class. You are an important member of this class and the last thing I would want is for you to leave. If you can wait until the end of class to share what’s going on, I would appreciate it.
Getting comfortable with yourself
It is the nature of the relationships we develop that really matters. Best of all, authentic teachers actually spend less of their time with difficult students because there are fewer instances of needing to take corrective time-consuming actions. Teachers who let down their defenses so that their students get to know them in their full humanity overwhelmingly have the fewest problems with discipline and motivation. They are comfortable in their own skin, including warts and pimples, and are able to own up when they blow it and know it. Further, they are unafraid to show their imperfections and realize that by showing these they actually connect much better with all of their students, particularly because tough students have plenty of their own and benefit from seeing that you don’t have to be perfect to be successful:
I messed up yesterday Dylan, and I owe you an apology. I lost my temper with you and called you out in front of your friends. That wasn’t right. I need to work harder on staying cool. Now that you know how I feel, is there anything else you think you could have done differently that could have kept us from getting upset at each other?
Without a doubt, many teachers nowadays feel pressured to produce high achievement in their students. So the idea of taking time away from the curriculum becomes anathema to stressed educators. After all, if I am taking time to say hello, asking with real interest about how your day is going, telling you a little bit about how my day is going and then side-tracking to tell a personal story that may or may not directly relate to the curriculum but lets kids in on knowing me, I may fear taking time away from what is really valued and upon which I will be evaluated: how well they do on the test(s) that measure academic growth and performance.
Making a lasting impact
As we know, most causes of low student achievement originate in outside-of-school family, social and economic factors over which educators have little control. Yet we cannot and must not render ourselves helpless. It is imperative that we believe, act and sustain our optimism that each of us can make a difference. As much pressure as there is to fulfill sometimes unrealistic expectations, when we close the door and pull the blinds, we are in charge of what we do. It sometimes takes years before kids realize the impact a caring, authentic adult had on them. Several years after Dante, a kid I worked with at a juvenile center, left the facility, he wrote a letter to one of the teachers there:
Dear Ms. R,
I been meaning to write you for a long time so I could say thanks cause you were there for me. I got a job and a family now. My kid is six and he’s doing good. When we were together at Craig, I couldn’t really talk much back then. I was too mad at my ma who walked out on us and my dad who drank too much. I couldn’t face all that stuff then, but you were there for me. Just the way you listened, I always knew you cared. I just want you to know I’m sorry I acted mean sometimes. Thanks again Ms. R.
Expect small successes every day and set your kids up for them. Let them know that you expect them to get just a little bit better each day than they were yesterday on what you are working on and that it is normal for there to be setbacks and disappointments along the way. Most importantly, when these are experienced, articulate these for your students
“I know you are disappointed but you must not give up. We both know that reading is tough for you and you probably worry that you aren’t as smart as a lot of other kids. I have felt like giving up too sometimes. I had a really hard time with (give some examples). But you are smart about a lot of things and I am going to prove to you that you can and you will get better at reading.”
I welcome your thoughts and comments.