Since the 1980s, we have been programmed to believe that we are “a nation at risk”. The 1957 launching of Sputnik was a wake up call to Americans (Kessinger, 2011), who believed that they were superior to other countries in both Math and Science. The fact that the Soviet Union was capable of being able to do this caused major concerns that schools were not doing a good enough job in sparking the minds of its young people.
This prompted the writing of A Nation at Risk in 1983, which was written by members of a Commission put together by the then Education Secretary, Terrel Bell (Graham, 2013). This report found that the condition of American education was very poor and unless something was done soon our nation was most certainly at risk (2013). Based on this report, we have placed a great deal of emphasis on curriculum and standardized tests, but we cannot forget about the human element in teaching. If we want to see students reach their highest potential, we must build a relationship with them that goes beyond the curriculum. Students don’t want to just hear about the knowledge an educator has in their brain, but they want to know about the condition of our hearts.
How to Build Relationships with Students
I had a student recently who did not respond to any other teachers no matter what; however, the student was passing my class with no problems. Many of the other teachers would ask me Why do they do your work and not mine? My answer was this:
- Get to know students from day one. Educators must understand how students prefer to learn. Interest surveys work very well in providing this information. Educators need to find multiple ways to measure knowledge because education is not one size fits all. We will only learn how to reach our students by getting to know them on a personal level.
- Set high expectations for all students. I let my students know that they can do ANYTHING if they set their minds to it. At the same time, I let them know that their education is an “us” priority as opposed to a “them”, meaning we have to take ownership for our students or lack thereof. We must bring their parents in early and ensure that we communicate with them along the way.
- Celebrate ALL success. Teachers must begin to embrace the idea that any growth is growth that should be celebrated. We need to unplug from the idea that students are numbers when clearly every child is unique and different. We must celebrate those differences and adapt our pedagogy to respond to their diversity. Growth is growth, and it is our job to celebrate our students’ accomplishments. Children need for us to be their cheerleader.
- Listen to students. We have to take students’ feelings into consideration when we make decisions that impact them. By listening to them, we show them that we respect and value their opinion. Even when we plan lessons, we should give them a voice and a choice as to what their learning should look like. When we respect our students, our students will respect us, and they will open their minds for us.
- Last, but not least, be vulnerable. I am not ashamed to admit to my students when I make a mistake, and I find that this is a trait they appreciate. Educators need to be vulnerable in front of their students. I can recall a time when I had my students doing a service project where they were collecting canned goods. I shared with my students that when I was younger, we were going through a tough time and needed a food basket. As I confided this with them, I began to cry and apologized to my students, but many of them thanked me for being “real”. My vulnerability put a human face on a very real condition. Do not be afraid to be who you are in front of students.
Relationships matter because good teacher-student relationships breed success. Frederick Douglass once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. By getting to know students, setting high expectations, celebrating successes, considering their feelings, and displaying our own vulnerability, we will cease to be “at risk” and build a strong generation through our relationships that go beyond the curriculum.
Graham, E. (2013). A Nation at Risk Turns 30: Where did it take us? NEA Today. Retrieved from http://neatoday.org/2013/04/25/a-nation-at-risk-turns-30-where-did-it-take-us/
Kessinger, T. A. (2011). Efforts toward educational reform in the United States since 1958: A review of seven major initiatives. American Educational History Journal, 38(2), 263-276.
Kelisa Wing is a Language Arts Teacher and AVID site team member for Faith Middle School in Fort Benning, Georgia. She is a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader and the 2017 Department of Defense Education Activity State Teacher of the Year. She is also the Continuous School Improvement Chair for her school. She is an Army veteran and a proud graduate of the University of Maryland University College and the University of Phoenix where she earned her Educational Specialist degree. In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering in the community and spending time with her family. *All thoughts are her own.