Why any of this works.

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One of the elements that has made our collaborative research project so interesting this year has been the diversity of our separate class schedules. While Beth taught all honors classes this year, I taught one honors class and two inclusion English classes, one of which being co-taught, meaning that I co-teach the class with a full-time Moderate Special Needs teacher. The co-taught model is especially effective in English Language Arts, and even more so because of the “project-based” mindset of my teaching practice for that particular course: students own their learning and work independently and collaboratively on a daily basis and work to achieve their individual goals. More on that later.

So how does that apply to the love of reading? Good question. You might say that the majority of my English classes this year have a bit of a “tough crowd.” We’re talking about a few students who, while the principal is sitting in a desk next to them observing me, decided it would be at this very moment the best time to start making animal noises in response to our group reading of a scene from A Raisin in the Sun. I’m not kidding.

This morning, I’m going to talk about the foundation of this whole project. Why does it work for Beth and me? Because we believe in the power of meaningful, effective and authentic relationships with our students. Beth isn’t giving herself enough credit… why does she have fifty plus requests for letters of recommendation? Because she is a teacher who genuinely cares about the students in front of her. Whenever a student walks into her room, they feel like her favorite student. And that’s a good thing.

I’ve learned that the most impactful form of discipline isn’t a reactionary approach, but a proactive one. A mentor teacher of mine once told me something that I think about every day:

“Always remember that there are twenty five more important people in the room than you.”

In my first five years of teaching, I haven’t thrown a student out of my room yet. Don’t misinterpret: I’ve come close. I’ve been lucky enough to figure something out pretty early on in my career about the way I want to teach. I certainly don’t think I have found the way to promote a culture of respect and authenticity in my classes, but the very least, I’ve figured something out that works for me, something that’s at the root of who I am as a teacher and what I think the profession of teaching should be all about.

I work every day to build and maintain positive, meaningful relationships with my students. It’s a long, hard process that often takes a while. I’ve noticed that when mutual respect is achieved between me and a class of high school students, great things can happen. Powerful conversations take place. The best part? The need for “discipline” disappears. You just don’t need it. There’s no room for it. My classes are respectful of me and interested in what I have to say simply because I reciprocate.

When I was in high school, I respected the teachers who respected me back. I took interest in those teachers who took interest in me. When we reminisce on the “glory days” of high school, I’m sure we all can think of a teacher or two who was more interested in hearing their own voice than relating to teenagers. It’s funny, because we often forget that students (really at any age) are much keener than we presume – they know who which of theirs teachers are are interested in establishing relationships, and those who aren’t.

As teachers, we show up at work every day for one reason: our students. We are invested in them: their well-being, comfort and learning rest and rely on the learning community that we establish in our classroom every day. It’s our responsibility to give those students a safe place where they feel valued, accepted and cared for.

Students need fewer people in their lives telling them “this is how it’s supposed to be” and more trusted adults saying “this is who you are right now, and thats okay.” I try to meet my students where they are when they walk in the door, but not forgetting about where they could be going.

At some point during any given school day, I’ll hear or read about an initiative that doesn’t necessarily make me uncomfortable, but perks up my ears. Don’t get me wrong: I firmly believe that new ideas or policy in education are important and promote and foster change in the “business” of what we do. Common Core is a good thing. New policies and procedures in educator supervision and evaluation are good things. It is important for the culture of education to continue to evolve, shift and change based on the world in which our students live. This is a fact. Things are changing, so teachers must too.

But, with that being said, one thing that shouldn’t change is our commitment to the social and emotional well-being of our students. This is at the center of what I do.

High school, like many of us can remember, is a weird time for a lot of reasons. Spoiler alert: most teenagers are more worried about who they are going to sit next to at lunch rather than their English homework. Instead of condemning this mindset, only continuing to fulfill the role of being the mean adult looking over your shoulder, it’s important for trusted adults (in and out of school) to recognize that adolescence is a critical point in a young person’s life. Neurons are firing on overtime trying to make sense of the stresses of seeking a place to fit in. Of course social pressures and mores take precedent. It’s natural.

As teachers, we have to make a choice: We can either ignore this behavior, putting it off as just a “phase” and playing down the social-emotional needs of our students, or, we can recognize that this stress has a direct impact on student learning, and develop and implement effective strategies that teach our students how to cope with this very normal time. The strategy I’ve chosen to focus on is creating and maintaining positive and meaningful relationships with my students, and I leverage these relationships to promote a culture of understanding and respect in my classes.

It works for me, and the results are awesome.

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