Think across times in your career when you encountered "those students." This individual sucks all of your time from the other students in your class. Whether a behavioral problem, or a student who under-performs academically, we come across these children relatively frequently in our careers. Some of you may be laughing thinking "I have one in every class" - or "one!? I have many!" Regardless of how many you might have, my question to ponder this week is: do we ever truly get to know these specific children?
I am involved in several extra-curricular activities within my community and school system. I direct the neighboring middle school's musicals, coach tournament paintball, co-sponsor our Freshmen class, co-sponsor our PEER program (Positive Experiences in Educational Relations), and of course, run the #bowtieboys. I say this because I am privileged to frequently interact with students outside of the classroom setting. And, just like we have "those kids" in our classrooms, I have them in my out-of-school activities as well. However, the purpose of this blog is not to ridicule them - but rather, to raise them up. I know this isn't much of a novel idea, but I have been absolutely floored by several of "those kids" when I have interacted with them outside of their "typical" environment.
Ever since the beginning of my career teaching seventh grade, I have used paintball as a motivator for my students. They are well aware each year that I play competitively and are always eager to join in the fun. In fact, the travel team I now coach was born (largely) out of former seventh graders who got into the sport after a few fun outings. But every month in seventh grade, I would ask students to raise their hands if they were interested in playing paintball one of the Saturday's of the month. Several boys and girls would raise their hands in each class, I would contact their parents, and take about fourteen students per trip. We met at the paintball field, played the day, and parents picked them up. In offering this fun weekend activity, I immediately noticed that their performance on the field translated to that within the classroom. I never put restrictions on play. I never took "only the straight A students" or "only those students without any discipline referrals." All were welcome, and a wide variety attended. It always struck me as intriguing how the same student who never completed homework was the child I always wanted on my team, or the overachiever was the biggest crybaby. Of course I am overgeneralizing, but the point was driven home that students are so much more than who they appear to be in class.
As teachers it is so easy for us to get lost in our lessons, our assessments, our due dates, and our projects and forget that students have lives outside of our classes. I know I certainly remember the teachers who monopolized all of my free time: the classes with endless busy work, the never ending exams, the five hundred point group projects, etc. But these students have enormous and varied lives outside of our doors. They are not just students but family members, friends, cultures, athletes, artists, mathematicians, scientists, historians, and no much more. It is easy, but wrong to take students for who they are in our classes. If our true aim is to inspire them to be productive and engaged students, we can certainly first do them the courtesy of engaging WITH them. A previous post entitled "Seasons" discusses how to develop rapport within the classroom, here are a few ideas for how to do so outside of the classroom:
1. Go to your students' sporting events and activities. I try to make a point to see each sporting event one time per season. It doesn't always work out, but students know I do this, so they invite me. So far this year I have been to freshman and varsity football, freshmen, junior varsity, and varsity basketball, hockey, and in a few weeks I will be seeing junior varsity and varsity baseball games. As you can see, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, track & field, wrestling, and I'm sure a few others are missing from this list. But I do the best I can without showing favoritism. The sports I choose have nothing to do with the students who play them and everything to do with what fits in to my busy calendar. The kids know I will make their games when I can. Just like it was on the paintball field, it is always incredible to me to watch students shine in areas other than English. In going to their games I also suggest forming relationships with their coaches. Discuss strategies of what motivates and doesn't motivate a student, learn more about their background and home life, evaluate how they interact with teammates, etc. Concordantly, supporting your artistic/theatrical/musical students will also offer windows into a student's heart. Because I direct musicals, I make a point to visit the other local schools' drama departments. This way I get to support and learn about art from all over the county. I attend band, orchestra, and chorus concerts as well and try to develop as many relationships as I can within the greater community. This allows me to draw from a wide applicant pool when I direct summer stock programs for high school students across the entire county. There are many valuable lessons that can be learned by attending a sporting event or extra-curricular activity. Students really appreciate when they see we have taken our free time to support them, and in my opinion, it is the absolute least we can do after taking up so much of their free time with our homework and projects. School may be a student's "job" but their activity is often times their "soul" and if we want them to have respect for us and our passions, we must first demonstrate it for theirs.
2. Offer fun "class bonding" activities for your classes. Paintball, like I mentioned above was always very positive with my middle schoolers. They also enjoyed when we would organize class "movie nights" to see a movie version of a book. I have taken students to see every Hunger Games movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Ender's Game, and more. Invite their parents to come along of course, everyone meets at the theatre and pays their way, but contacting the theatre ahead will sometimes allow for discounts, private showings, etc. These are not field trips as we host such activities on the weekend. They have nothing to do with the school system and I make this clear to parents. Aside from sports activities and movies, I have taken students out for meals (especially at casual restaurants like iHop, TGIF, Buffalo Wild Wings, and CiCi's Pizza). Students again bring their own money, sometimes bring a parent, and sit with their friends at big tables in one section of the restaurant. We adults typically create tables of our own in another section and are only summoned when the checks come around. Other activities with smaller groups can include: miniature golf, ropes courses, and bowling. No matter the activity, the focus should be on creating an environment for students to bond and for parents to get to know us better. Parents are often a forgotten or "unwelcome" factor of the classroom. But they are in fact our biggest allies and can also be our biggest cheerleaders and supporters. I know I said to give up weekend time, but I promise it will be time well spent.
3. Open the classroom during lunch, "flex," or study hall periods. Even though this technically takes place in school (and likely in our classroom), I have found one of the most powerful ways to develop rapport is to invite students in for lunch. I never make this mandatory or punitive, but just every now and then announce that students are always welcome to come in for lunch, flex (free period), or study hall. In middle school, students lined up by the dozens to have study hall in my classroom. This wasn't because we hung out and did no work (quite the opposite), but they knew they would be allowed to talk, collaborate, and chat about their days, their interests, their friends, whatever. In high school, study hall time is much more precious so I actually have a lot more students who come in during their lunch blocks. Sometimes they come in for extra help, sometimes to practice an oral presentation, sometimes to complete homework (even not for my class), but most of the time just to sit and talk. It is always nice connecting with current students and re-connecting with former students who stop by. I have found that making myself open and welcoming has allowed me to develop rapports that transcend any behavioral or academic deficiency a student may "supposedly" have. Many of my #bowtieboys come in for their lunch blocks, students bring friends, and we just talk about life. Sometimes it's serious, other times low-key, it's frequently comical, and always fun and productive. In fact, I have enjoyed these lunches so much, I plan to embed this into my teaching next year. The hope is that I will be able to meet with each of my 125 students in the first five weeks of school (last week of August to the last week of September). With four lunch blocks a day, I believe this will be possible. Coupled with the ideas I presented in "Seasons," I hope this will render the best student relationships I have experienced to date.
Sometimes the only way to engage a student, especially a difficult behavioral or academic case, can be through bonding outside of the classroom setting. When we create these opportunities and environments, we are showing out students that we care about them as more than just names on a roster or percentages in a grade book. They are more than lexile scores, behaviors, intrinsic motivation, whatever. Students appreciate and respect the teachers that go out of their way for them. And in my experience, these students (including "those students") will go out of the way for us in return. It is for these reasons I truly believe that the best REVENGE we can take on the students who "suck our time away from us" is to just give them even more. More and more and more and more and before we know it, there won't be any more my time and their time, but our time. Every time.