The key to great teaching? People, not products.
By Lee Anne Hill
Sometimes, as a teacher of high school students, I need to remind myself of who I was when I was the student in a high school classroom. If memory serves, I was more concerned with friend and boyfriend drama than I was with academics. Sure, there were classes I enjoyed and teachers I liked, but my high school experience was more about being social. Over 20 years later, I think most high school students would still agree that high school, through the eyes of a student, isn’t just a place of academics. It is a place of intense judgement where emotions run high, and kids aren’t always in the right frame of mind to buy into what we as teachers are selling. While academics are paramount, creating authentic relationships with students creates student buy-in especially with kids who aren’t academically focused.
The summer before my senior year in high school, the unimaginable happened. I found out that I was pregnant. I was terrified to tell my parents. Facing my teachers at school was another ordeal. Due to my embarrassment, I waited to inform my teachers until I was roughly two months from delivery, although I am pretty sure they knew by that point. My biggest fear was feeling that I would be judged, and that my teachers would be mad at me and treat me differently than everyone else.
When I think back to being that 18 year old girl who was so anxious and embarrassed to discuss my situation with my teachers, I remind myself how important it is that I create relationships with as many of my students as possible.
While it is important to teach content and skills, it is equally important to create an environment in which students do not feel they are being judged because most of them feel they are being judged in so many other areas in their life. My goal as a teacher is to be as aware as possible of every student in my classroom. I aim to speak to each one of my students everyday. Even a simple “Hello, how are you?” can go a long way. Heck, sometimes I don’t even teach the entire period (gasp!). I just spend time talking with my kids about life: what they like to watch; movie recommendations; where they work and whether or not they like it. Sometimes we talk politics, current events, pop culture. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that at the end of the day, my kids feel I am truly invested in them as people, not just students in a desk. The best part of this is finding out these “kids” are pretty cool people with unique perspectives and ideas. Of course I would love for my students to remember most everything they learned about reading and writing, but it is even more important that they remember me as someone who made them feel valued.
We all have our “favorite” teachers. But a certain few remain mine not because of what they taught me in the classroom (they were excellent teachers), but because of what they taught me about being a teacher. They each created a meaningful, and in some cases, lasting relationship with me. They treated me like a person. They treated me with kindness and respect and met my needs not only as a student, but as a young mother. Without feeling that connection, I wonder if I would have had the drive to start college immediately after graduating from high school and continue to earn my masters in, of all things, teaching! These teachers made such a connection with me that I wanted to honor the time and energy they put into me — they seemed to know I could accomplish something, so I set out to do it.
My psychology teacher, a man who must have been well into his 50s at the time, bought a card when my daughter was born and had my classmates sign it. When I returned to school after 6 weeks, he had me study and write about the Baby Blues as part of my psychology assignment.
My art teacher would ask me about my pregnancy and share stories about her own children without making me feel ashamed about my situation.
My English teacher was so excited when I brought my newborn daughter in for a visit. I can remember her holding my new baby and asking me how I was feeling. A couple years after graduation I lived in an apartment complex near her neighborhood and would sometimes stop by while I was out for a walk.
These teachers showed me they cared in very specific ways. While my situation was unique, I learned that teachers play an important role in how students feel about themselves.
It is easy to get swept up in the daily grind. We get to school, get our coffee, get our things in order, and once the children arrive — We’re OFF! Teaching can sometimes become robotic. We know what skills we want to teach, and we have a plan to teach them. And in the midst of the chaos, and learning, and answering questions, and grading, well — it can be hard to remember that we are teaching people. Just young kids. And it can be really hard to remember that the people they are when they are 15, 16, and 17 will likely not be the person that they become. Yes, the skills they acquire while in our classroom will no doubt lead to success, but the relationships we create contribute to the growth of not just students, but human beings. And we should take that role just as seriously as we do content and skills.
Lee Anne Hill is a National Board Certified Teacher at North Oldham High School in Goshen, KY. She is in her 14th year of teaching high school English.