Teachers: Connecting with Students is Your Most Important Work
By Dr. Sara Bhonsale, Former Educator
When all is said and done, your relationship with your students is what matters more than anything. That is what they remember and your connection with them determines what they learn in your class, be it both positive or negative.
Really though, think back to your favorite teacher. You remember their name immediately, you remember your favorite thing about them and…I bet you remember one particular lesson that spoke to you. Maybe that lesson made you laugh, maybe it made you think very deeply about something that is still really important to you, or maybe that was what inspired you to become an educator. Regardless, there’s a strong chance that a teacher made you feel seen, validated, and worthy. (While the opposite is true of your least favorite school memory, we will save that for another time.)
My favorite teacher is Mrs. Saunders.
When I was in third grade, my family wasn’t doing very well. My parents had recently divorced and this had put a tremendous emotional and financial strain on my mother. My two sisters and I had a really tough experience when school was over and we had to go home. School, at that time, was my safe place, because of Mrs. Saunders.
I’ll never forget that Christmas when Mrs. Saunders insisted I come back to the school on a Saturday because she had something for me. I walked to the school, and she gifted me her daughter’s bicycle that she’d outgrown. I loved it, I remember the pastel pink hue and how grown-up it seemed! I took the bike home and rode it for a few years up and down the cul-de-sac.
Mrs. Saunders not only did something thoughtful, kind, and generous that Christmas, but she also made me feel like I mattered. She let me feel like I was worthy of something special. This is a moment that would not only shape my values and beliefs in my future career but also change how I saw the world and the humanity within it.
Fast forward a bit. I dropped out of high school for a myriad of reasons including the need to work a full-time job. I wanted to go to college. I decided I wanted to be a teacher because Mrs. Saunders’ lesson stayed with me since the day I rode that beautiful pink bike home. Despite feeling a little lost I always knew I was finding my way, and I wanted to do that for other young people who deserved to feel worthy and valued.
During my first year teaching in a multi-age classroom, the principal pulled me aside and told me about this student who would be joining the class. He was younger than the other kids, and a very unique learner, but this student needed to and could, and SHOULD thrive. “Alright!” said the first-year teacher ready to welcome this kiddo. His mom introduced herself at the Open House, and I immediately recognized her. She was the former owner of the pink bike, Mrs. Saunders’ daughter, now the parent of my new student, Mark. Meeting Mark, I could understand why he might not thrive in a then-traditional classroom. He was funny, jovial, creative, and inquisitive. Circling ducks in a workbook day after day just didn’t do it for him.
Mark was in my class for the remainder of the year, and did I love on that kid- not just because of what his grandmother had taught me and the serendipity of the situation, but because he was a cool kid. All of the students that came through my classroom through the years have been COOL kids.
My students are also cool humans.
Each student comes to us with a unique humanity, set of experiences, beliefs, and way of looking at the world. How we connect to our students matters. Our students need to know that they matter, too.
When I began teaching in Hawaii, my students were not lacking in their unique humanity, experiences, beliefs, or way of looking at the world. I was quickly reminded that connection and building a relationship with your students is the most important thing you can do as an educator. Once our students knew their teachers genuinely cared about them and had an interest in their culture, their background, their language, and their norms — they’d trust us enough to let us try and teach them something.
I was constantly reminded to tell students that I care. I was reminded to let them know that they are worthy. My students (who are now adults in my community — ooof) love to stop me in the drugstore and sing our “long division song” or remind me of that one time that “Math Girl” (who looked suspiciously like me only in a costume) came in and taught them how to take a standardized assessment. As much as I love to be reminded of a quick change in the supply closet to get my students to care about the upcoming State Test, what I really appreciate is that somewhere a relationship developed strong enough to have them comfortably shout “MATH GIRL!” in a crowded store.
Kidding aside — if I’m being honest, I’m more honored to have met those students as children and see them as grown-ups with their own families; being proud of who they are in this world.
I hope Mrs. Saunders remembers me too, and she feels satisfied that she had such a profound impact on one person who wanted to pay it forward.
A few of my former students are now teachers. While I may not have been their Mrs. Saunders, I know they had a Mrs. Saunders in their life at some point. My (unsolicited) advice to them is the same. Don’t worry so much about fitting all those standards and curricula and textbooks into the school year. Get to know your students, they’re cool kids! Learn about their lives. Recognize them as complex people with complex humanity. This will make your day-to-day more tolerable, but also allow them to truly LEARN. In the end, the relationships matter. What we teach our kids is beyond what fits in a weekly planner, but can be incredibly powerful and simple as knowing what a hand-me-down pink bike can do for a future educator.
Dr. Sara Bhonsale serves as the Digital Acceleration Group Director Partnerships, working alongside bothAlaska and Hawaii schools. Dr. Bhonsale has been in education for over 20 years, supporting Hawaii schools since 2004. Dr. Bhonsale taught in primarily Title I districts in the mainland and in Hawaii, working to provide ALL students with opportunities to engage and grow. She is passionate about helping all students use literacy as the primary tool towards equity, and believes that authentic student-centered education is our best means towards social justice.