Wednesday, March 18, 2009

On Failure, Part 2: Student-Teacher Relationships

This is part of a two week series on my five biggest failures and five biggest successes as a teacher this year. This week I am focusing on failure, while next week will focus on success.

The one skill I've prided myself on over the years has been my ability to connect with students and build strong relationships with them. It's one of the reasons I started this blog, and the thing that keeps me going through the many, many difficult times.

Unfortunately I feel like I've never been less successful at building relationships than I have this year. It was sincerely heartbreaking and depressing that by mid-year, I couldn't name a single student that I had made that kind of connection with that makes this job so worth it. Even now, after making some significant adjustments, I can probably count on one hand the students for whom I make a difference in their lives (and vice versa).

I think one major reason is that I forgot how good I am at one-on-one conversations. I am very frank and honest with students most of the time, partly because I'm not very good at hiding my emotions but mainly because my students respond to it so positively. This quality allows me to pull a student aside and level with them in a way some teachers just can't do. I don't claim to have some sort of special charm or magic words that get students on my side--it's just that my good intentions are just so plainly obvious that you'd have to be more stubborn than I can be in order to ignore them successfully.

I can't tell you how many times I've cringed at a well-meaning teacher engaging in the most blatantly patronizing teacher-speak you can imagine with a student they truly cared about and wanted to help. You can see the pain on the students' face, their eyes literally or figuratively rolling back in their head as if this was indeed killing them as much as it was killing me.

What I did wrong this year is that while I didn't abandon my honesty and general manner of speaking to students, I didn't pull students aside for the effective one-on-one conversations that helped me build so many solid relationships quickly. There were so many times where I told myself, "If I could only get a few uninterrupted minutes with this kid, I can turn our relationship around..." only to let myself be carried away by various other concerns we teachers deal with every day.

This is a major failure because the student population at my school absolutely, positively needs this kind of intervention more than most schools. It's more difficult than it has been with any group I've encountered, as many of these students are so hostile to and disconnected from what we're trying to do that it would be easy for us to throw in the towel. I'm disappointed in myself, because to some extent I feel like I had thrown in the towel for most of the year before yanking it back at the last moment (but still have it ready to throw in again at a moment's notice).

In a Sentence
Building strong student-teacher relationships is what really makes a difference in students' lives--and yours as well.