One of the things I most clearly and firmly believe about education is the importance of relationships. Since our oldest entered middle school and high school I’ve seen this on a new scale. The classes she most enjoys each year haven’t been because of the content, but because of the teacher. This year our musical theater loving, fan fiction writing, highly empathetic kid loves geometry and biology over everything (except maybe American Sign Language). Those two teachers have built relationships with her and communities in their classrooms that have made those classes places she loves to be.
Her experiences have only solidified what I already believed and worked for in our classroom. Every morning I stand at our door and greet my students with a handshake, high five, or hug, their choice (or an elbow bump, something we started when I wasn’t feeling great and didn’t want to risk passing on germs). And, most critically, their name and a smile. That way I can be sure every kid gets a smile from me every day. Given how many hours they spend with me, it would be nice to think I needn’t worry about that. But sometimes there’s that kid who is just getting to me and I want to know that they get a smile. Plus, starting off the day that way can’t be bad.
I apologize when I screw up. That isn’t always easy, but it is important. I try hard to really focus on students and listen as they share things with me. (I may find it dull at times, but it is important to them so it matters.) I invite families in once a month to do something with us in our classroom. I send postcards home to students celebrating something they did. I want to know my students and I want them to know me. I want them to feel seen and heard. I believe that will make it easier for them to learn, feel invested in their learning, and take risks.
All of which is good.
This past week I began to wonder if there wasn’t a downside. Not a downside to relationships or community per se. A downside to what it meant for my behavior and choices. As a result of the relationships I’ve worked hard to build (although, it’s really not that hard with young children, to be honest) I wonder if I take advantage of that.
If I’m really truthful, I’m not wondering. I have realized I do this. Maybe not all the time, but definitely some. Having strong relationships with young children gives one power over them. Even more power than one already has as an adult and teacher, which is plenty of power.
My students trust me, they like me, they want to make me happy. I trust them, like them, and want to make them happy as well. That’s part of having a strong relationship. What I’ve realized recently, and it’s taken longer than it should because I’m really good at denial, is that I use that trust and respect to manipulate their behavior. I know that they want to make me happy and I can use that to get them to behave or complete work. That’s not terrible, but I’d rather they behave to be respectful and kind to others and I’d rather they complete work because they’re interested in learning. They are human and I don’t expect them to do this all the time, but it is a goal.
Sometimes I manage to make this our focus. Sometimes I discuss with them why I expect them to behave a certain way. Other times…I just give them a look or a sharp word.
Sometimes I make sure the work I’m asking them to do is challenging in an interesting way. Sometimes I make sure they have choice in what they’re doing. Sometimes I make sure they get to share their thinking about their learning and what is and isn’t working for them. Sometimes…Other times, I threaten repercussions if things don’t get done.
I recognize that, like my students, I am human and I will screw up. My goal is to screw up less often. My goal is to work with my students in the community we’ve built rather than resort to manipulation and coercion.