Building a classroom community was the last idea on my mind last Friday. I taught all day through with zero plan periods. I met with a student during 3rd hour to go over her multiple-perspective memoir and had arranged to meet a 2013 graduate during my 6th hour prep to answer some questions he had about post-graduate education.
I was tired.
I didn’t want to go to those meetings.
I’m glad I did.
Building a Classroom Community
It is not often that I get to re-connect with former students. That in and of itself energized me. This particular student was my first teacher’s assistant. I never doubted he would succeed, but he certainly had a lot of struggles when it came to his family situation.
Fast forward six years and this student is about to begin a double doctoral program in research medicine at a prestigious university. And…he wanted to talk to me? I asked him why he picked me and he said that another teacher he was close to was too nice and wouldn’t be honest with him. There you have it folks. I’m the honest teacher. I love this label! But what about other kinds of labels, labels that aren’t appreciated or worn with pride?
I’m not sure that I said anything particularly insightful during our conversation, but he seemed satisfied. I left thinking not about something I said, but about something that he said to me. #goodconversation
He made an interesting observation from the perspective of a medical student working in a hospital.
Not everyone thinks like him, he said, and it’s been a learning curve trying to turn textbook knowledge into something patients can understand. He mentioned the observation that connection with patients is so important and proceeded to give several examples.
He observed a supervising doctor who needed to tell a cancer patient about the need to lose 60 pounds. The doctor sat with that woman for an hour explaining why it was so important to lose this weight. She could’ve just given some literature, as well as an explanation (which other doctors had probably done), with no results. Just two months later, that patient had already lost 20 pounds. Why? Connection. Time investment. Making it personal.
My former student has clearly learned the value of bedside manner, and that got me thinking about my “bedside manner” as a teacher. In a nutshell, bedside manner is the role a teacher plays in building a classroom community.
Building Student Culture: Connect
My former student now tries to make a connection with every patient, no matter how small. For a retired English teacher, he brought up the memoir The Glass Castle (which he read in my sophomore English class, btw) to put her at ease. For a 96-year-old, he asked about historical events she had lived through, drawing on his knowledge from history classes. Because he knows that if he can connect with the person he can treat him or her much more effectively.
A patient with high blood pressure can talk with him about life, and be back to normal within minutes. A patient can insist on not having a medical student as a doctor but later say she wouldn’t want anyone else to treat her. There’s power in connection.
He’s still learning content, but I think he’s discovered the most important key…it all comes down to human connection at the end of the day.
Building a Classroom Community Beyond Labels
It’s easy to think of patients in terms of what room they’re in, what condition(s) they have, what medicines they are currently taking. There’s a certain sterile safeness in keeping a professional distance, not getting too attached.
Likewise, it’s easy to think of students in terms of what class they’re in, if they have an IEP or 504, if they have behavior issues, how much they talk, if they have work-completion issues, etc. There’s a certain, less-tired safeness in focusing on the craft of teaching vs. the student. Building a classroom community requires craft + compassion, book smarts + street smarts.
It’s harder to think of the person behind the label. It’s harder to take the time to converse, connect, follow-up, personalize. But it’s so much more important. And it’s so much more rewarding. And it’s so much more effective for student learning.
Yes, I know, teaching is not a life or death matter…but our “patients” need us to pay attention to bedside manner. Connection. Time investment. Making it personal. These are the keys to building a classroom community.
Student Labels: Labeling Theory
I’ve always been a firm believer that students rise to meet the expectations we set. I want to make sure that I’m teaching the whole student. I want to give students a clean slate when they walk into my room in August…and keep erasing it all year long.
There’s a theory called “labeling theory” that basically suggests that labels create certain behavior. I want to see the student before his/her label, maybe even help a student see him or herself in a new and more positive way.
This goes beyond the typical educational labels stamped on kids in terms of ability or disability. I want to guard against those teacher-created labels, you know, the ones inside your head. Oh, there’s Josh, the kid who always raises his hand in class, the one with the teacher mom: he’ll do well on his next assessment. John shouldn’t be in an honors class; his writing is weak. Devin probably won’t do his homework tonight…he never does his work…I’ll have to send another parent email today. Nicole is truant…again. Rita came with warnings from her previous English teachers: “She barely passed my class last year. Watch out for the excuse train.” Sure, we might do this because behavior warranted it. Sure, we want all kids to succeed. But…let’s be real.
Does this kind of teacher head talk help in building a classroom community? Can we take the time to truly connect with the student behind whatever labels have been given?
Let’s not forget that some labels are necessary and give “best practice” for teachers to help meet a particular student’s needs. Remember that student I met with during 3rd hour? She ended up talking to me about her struggles post-concussion which have lasted for over a year, leading to long-term side effects. Unfortunately, most of her teachers, she said, don’t understand her limitations despite her 504 accommodations and notes from the doctors. They have labeled her as a “troublemaker” and as someone who doesn’t care about her grades or her work, or as less intelligent just because she may miss school or ask to visit the nurse more frequently. They see a concussion as a short-term diagnosis. She’s become stronger as a result of this situation, but this is an example of a label that has been ignored by teachers to her detriment.
So, today, I challenge myself (and you, reader)…see beyond whatever labels may be applied to each student. Don’t stop at a label. Don’t let a label represent a one-dimensional way of seeing a student. Catch students doing good. Celebrate their successes. See learners as unfinished works of art and talk about them as you would want teachers to see and talk about your own child. It may just help a student to do the same: to see beyond his/her labels, to ditch a label, to re-label him or herself, to continue to grow. Building a classroom community requires teachers to act like every student can and will succeed
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