"Oh Captain, My Captain."
Some of you may know a fun fact that the night before the first day of school, during of every single year of my 20+ year teaching career, I watched the movie Dead Poet's Society to create inspiration for the year ahead and reconnect with a philosophy and practice of teaching & life I have always held near and dear to my heart: The Importance of Building Relationships.
While I never had students daring enough to address me in the same way Todd Anderson speaks to Mr. Keating in the final scene of that inspiring yet tragic film, I remember watching that movie for the first time and being instantly enamored with the connection that Mr. Keating's students had to his energy, his passion for learning & expression, and the deep, lasting bond they formed as a collective group.
Photo courtesy of Touchstone Pictures (1989). No copyright infringement is intended in this post.
In the years following the release of one of my favorite movies of all time, I was fortunate to have two transformational Math teachers during my junior and senior year of high school who further embedded this idea in my brain & heart, stirring an even greater motivation in me to pursue my dream of teaching high school and coaching basketball. Mr. Rothery and Mr. Jensen at Horizon HS in Scottsdale were far more than merely high school math teachers. They were wonderful, genuine human beings who valued us as individuals and genuinely cared about how we were doing, both in our learning and in our day to day lives. At the same time, they had high expectations for all students and pushed us to reach heights greater than even we could picture, all the while creating opportunities to inject humor and storytelling into our class. I cannot tell you how many times I have thought of Mr. Rothery and Mr. Jensen over the year (and countless other educators who have helped me along the way) as I grew in my craft as an educator, doing everything in my power to build genuine relationships for and among all my students.
"You know, kids don't learn from people they don't like." ---Rita Pierson
Never has the power of human connection like those formed in Mr. Keating's class, and encouraged by teachers like Mr. Rothery and Mr. Jensen, been more critical or necessary than it is right now as we begin the 2021-2022 school year. None of us can predict exactly how this school year will play out, at this point. There are so many variables still yet to be defined and many educators across the country may still see their classroom environments shift several times over the next 10-11 months. But one thing will absolutely be consistent across all classrooms this year: Teachers must take time to build connections with every student to create a safe, consistent place for learning to happen.
It's really that simple.
One of my favorite educators of all time, Rita Pierson, nailed it when she said, "You know, kids don't learn from people they don't like." The likelihood students will be successful each year depends far more on their relationship with their teacher, their peers and their own confidence than it does on any test score or grade they received in years previous.
And as we head into this school year, let's remember too that our amazing students have had one heck of a last 16-17 months and are coming back with a variety of concerns, fears, insecurities, and unknowns. (Oh, by the way, teachers are probably not much different, but we will address that in the weeks ahead.) Now more than ever, our students need us to be a role model they can connect with, like and respect. And they need each other, too, to build a classroom community where acceptance, respect, and collaboration are the only pre-requisites that matter. To do this, I believe Teachers must rethink their own definition of the work we do.
I have long struggled with the answer to the question: "What do you do?" It's truly one of life's simplest and more basic questions and is the entry point for countless conversations to create talking points and potential connections. The answer a teacher would most likely share would be just as simple and direct as the question itself: "I teach Chemistry," or "I teach Kindergarten" or the dreaded "I teach middle school." This answer only addresses the "what" we teach and completely misses the target on the depth and purpose of our amazing profession which is that it's all about "WHO" we teach. We don't teach a subject, or a grade level or even an age group…we teach students. We teach young people who will build the next great generation. We teach unique, amazing individuals who want nothing more than to find their purpose in life, which may involve something other than the specific curriculum or content we teach in our classes.
We teach human beings. And human beings at their core are driven by finding connections: connections among their own thoughts & experiences, and connections with those whose path they cross throughout their lives. Former Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor said, "We don't accomplish anything in this world alone…and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something."
Seems the world sure could even use more thinking in this direction, huh? Certainly, schools could benefit from a more dedicated focus along those same lines, as well. Trust me…your students will appreciate it and they will learn more willingly, more consistently, and deeper than ever before
So how do we do this? How do we effectively begin the school year emphasizing connection over curriculum, trusting that more effective learning will happen as a natural, very healthy consequence of this shift in focus? These may seem like simple questions to answer but many teachers will struggle with how/why to do this, preferring to just dive right in and get back to normal.
Here are just a few tips for creating value on connection over curriculum as you and your students begin this year:
Don't even think about pulling out a syllabus, timeline, grading scale, or anything of the sort during the first week of school
There is a tired tradition within the first day or two of school, especially at the high school level, that teachers pass out some document that outline what is expected of the students, how they will be graded, what to do about late work, and more. Years ago, I bucked the system and stopped passing that out until the second week of school so I could take time to establish the culture of my classroom and how we would all interact day to day. The old saying, "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression," certainly applies here and if you make day 1 all about grades, assignments, tasks and rules…you will certainly give a clear impression of what matters most to you and how you define success in your class.
Create time for students to chat with one another, face-to-face
I know, even as an adult with slightly above average communication skills, that my comfort level with being engaged within a group of people has changed over the last year-plus. I am certain our students feel their communication habits have been altered as well so let's make sure to give them time to just chat. Whether it be about how learning went for them, what they want out of this class, or what they did to create some fun experiences over the summer…encouraging these conversations at the start of the school year can take so much of the anxiety and uncertainty off the table, allowing for a more open learning environment. It also establishes an expectation that communication and collaboration are valued in your class, which students will embrace throughout their learning journey.
Learn something about each of your students
I had a long-standing tradition of playing a name game on the first day of class each year. The first student stands up, says their name to introduce themselves to the class, and then shares their favorite band/musical artist (this has also been favorite food, place to travel, and a few other options over the years). Then, the next student stands up, says the name and artist of the first student, then shares the same info about themselves. Student three gets up, shares both previous students’ info with the class and then introduces themselves to the class…and the process repeats until the final student must recite everyone's name and artist before sharing their own to wrap it up. It's a wonderful way to find out some fun info about each student, and it is also a fabulous lesson about how the brain works because students will most often forget the name and/or artist of the person right before them, even though they just heard it. Allows me to talk about the importance of repetition and memory as it relates to learning. Give it a shot…you will love it!
Find out about the successes & challenges students faced during the last year
When given the opportunity, students of all ages have amazing ideas, thoughts and suggestions to share. Especially after this last year of learning, it is vital that teachers listen to and understand what worked and what didn't during virtual and hybrid learning to better understand how they can meet student needs moving forward. To assume we know exactly how it went and what that will look like in our classrooms this year is to miss an opportunity to form connections with your students to help them during this time of transition.
Remove the term "learning loss" from the vocabulary of your classroom
From the moment people started using this term, it just rubbed me the wrong way. Did all students learn last year as effectively and deeply as they would during a traditional school year in years passed…probably not. But some did, and some learned even better, and still others may not have learned much at all but it's not a "loss". Every year (including this one) teachers take the pulse of their classroom, figure out what amazing young people they have before them, and then we work to meet them where they are. While figuring out the right combination of lessons and activities may be a bit more difficult this school year, establishing a strong foundation of communication, collaboration and connection from the start will open far more doors for your students and you on down the road.
I look forward to sharing more with you over these next few weeks and beyond, and to hearing the stories of what worked for you in creating a thriving classroom culture, full of learners who are excited to connect with themselves, their peers, and you. Maybe a few of them will recognize the importance you have placed on connection over curriculum, and they may be so bold and comfortable to address you as, "Oh Captain, My Captain."
Here's to a great school year ahead…see you all next week!