Without relationships, you can not learn. For me, you can't be a great teacher without developing a personal connection. There is so much depth to our students that on any given day something just might not be sitting right with them. This could impair any learning that would hopefully take place during a lesson. However, when students know they have a safe and secure environment with a teacher who actually cares, they are more likely to open up and work through whatever is going on to allow the learning to then take place.
When I think back to my favourite teachers at school growing up, it had nothing to do with the content they taught me (though I’m sure they were amazing at teaching) but rather how they made me felt. Just like in any relationship, it is the small things that make a difference and remembered. My ninth grade teacher not only showed up to a funeral of a family member but she also remembered every year throughout high school. My fourth-grade teacher helped me understand what it was like to overcome challenges and be resilient. My ballet teacher would sit and talk after a class about everything in life just because she cared. Not only were these meaningful conversations and experiences for me but this also translated into how we interacted inside the classroom. These are the teachers who have taught me most about what it is to be a teacher, how to teach and how to be a person you can be proud of.
Through reflection, this reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Students need to feel safe, to need to know that harm will not come to them and that they are allowed to be who they are without laughter directed at them. Our students need to be able to come to school feeling warm, clothed and with food in their stomachs. Our students need to feel like they belong to a community where individual differences are celebrated. Our students need to know that their teachers care. As students develop their basic needs and their self-esteem is boosted, it is then that the student is able to let their guard down to learning.
In the Durham District School Board in Canada during my student teacher practicum, I assisted with a morning breakfast club for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who may not have had another opportunity to start the day with a bit of food. These kinds of programmes within schools not only help to satisfy the basic needs of students but also helps to build the relationships with the students. When a student sees a teacher coming in early to make sure they have food there is this unspoken mutual respect that instantly appears. Even further when a teacher can then sit down beside the student and have a conversation with them before school. No longer is the teacher seen as just the teacher but more of an equal which allows students to break down barriers and develop a sense of comfort.
I currently work at an international school so things like a breakfast club will never exist at my school. However, even while a student’s home life might have some of the lower needs taken care of, students still need to feel safe and cared for in order to be able to learn. So much of my job revolves around pastoral care and well being of my students. One of the things I have done in my class for the past two years is have a weekly email programme as part of my writing programme. Students are required to write an email to me each week through their student accounts about one of the given topics or anything else they may wish to share. This has allowed students another way to feel comfortable talking to me about things that are happening at school and in their life. Sometimes it is not always easy to have conversations face to face but with the barrier of a computer screen, you can learn a lot about the person on the other end. I have had my students write to me from everything from homework issues, fights with classmates, the death of pets, best friends leaving the country, grandparents that are ill and much more. Would these conversations have come up inside the classroom? Maybe, maybe not. But what I do know is that having the dialogue through email made my learning environment a safe space for any conversation whenever they needed it. Even in the summer, I still sometimes get a few emails from my students showing me that to them, that connection was important to them and in helping them grow.
It is not good enough to just be a teacher who knows the curriculum if you cannot connect to your students to deliver the content in a meaningful way. The only way you can learn what will be engaging for your students is if you take the time to get to know them.