This is my cat. His name is Dante. I love him more than almost anything else on the planet. If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m not really a personal blogger, so this is a new move for me, but hang in there–it’ll get back around to teaching. For now, just look deep into those handsome feline eyes and say, “Awwww!” Then, scroll down.
This post is about human connections. And you just had one with me. I shared something about my life that is both important to me and almost universally relatable. This is something we do to build relationships with our friends and family constantly. But do we do this with our students? For me, if I’m being honest, I have to say the answer is normally “no.”
Especially high school teachers, I think, are encouraged to keep their personal lives very quiet in the classroom. There are many very good reasons for that. For me, it’s mostly about time and professionalism. I need to cover a lot of rigorous content with a lot of students in very little time. That’s my job. I take this seriously to a fault, even so far as to respond to the occasional, “Did you do anything cool this weekend, Ms. H?” with something like, “That’s neither here nor there–but let’s take out our Chromebooks and check out today’s learning targets!” I like being focused on what my students are learning, and I like a veil of privacy to be drawn between my work and home life. My students understand that I am their teacher, not their pal, and that I don’t respond to Q&A’s about my life… even if I will talk with them for hours about their writing.
But there’s a time and a place for everything, and sometimes even the most professional teacher has to let a little bit of daylight come through between that personal-professional barrier in order to be an effective educator. The reality is that kids respond to teachers who present themselves as people. And while I’ll certainly never be comfortable sharing very much, there are certain aspects of life that are always worth sharing–things like sports, art, and animals. These three topics never fail to spark delight in even the students who are hardest to reach. I remember, a few years ago, being warned about a particular student who had a problem with authority. I brought up my concerns to another teacher, who gave me the key–“Just talk to him about fishing,” she said, “and he’ll love you forever.” She gestured over to her bulletin board at the collection of handmade lures that he had given to her, and smiled. This is something that I tend to forget, and I am grateful every time that I am reminded of it. Talk to the kid about what he loves, and share a little bit about what you love. Sometimes, it goes a long, long way.
So, back to Dante the cat. A couple of my junior classes this year made it very challenging for me to motivate and interest them. For whatever reason, many of these kids kept me very much at arm’s length at the beginning of the year. This was understandable–as a new teacher in the school, they didn’t know me or necessarily trust me. It didn’t matter how many times I’d offer to look at their writing or talk to them about their reading; they simply weren’t having it. So, when we did a multi-media memoir vignette project, I took one of those personal risks that one has to take before expecting trust in return. I created an exemplar memoir vignette about my cat: the process of adopting him, the way I nearly decided to return him to the Humane Society after his aggression wouldn’t subside, and the slow, beautiful process of his becoming the most loyal and gentle feline friend I could have. I “broke rank” and even included pictures of me with my cat, and openly gushed about him, at the risk of cementing my status as a crazy cat lady.
But you know what? The kids LOVED it. And it created a window that everyone could reach through who has ever cared about an animal… and that’s pretty much every one. Just from that little bit of sharing, I got more eye contact, more smiles, and–truly–more effort on assignments. Students would purposefully bring me stories of the antics that their pets were up to, and show off cell phone pictures. It made a huge, lasting difference. I even mentioned Dante just in passing the other day, and when one student said, “Who’s Dante?” another responded with, “How do you NOT know who Dante is?! He’s Ms. H’s amazing cat!”
Recently, a colleague of mine was asking for advice on what to do to reach a group of students who just wouldn’t work for him or respond to him. My suggestion was to take some time to talk with each of them, one on one, and just kind of “check in” with their progress in the class or toward graduation, and see what they wanted to share. Even though it’s not found in any textbook, the occasional moment of inviting others to share what’s important to them is an important way to invite youth to engage with us. It may not be written explicitly in the curriculum, but it’s something that should not be forgotten.
So, I may still refrain from sharing personal details about my beliefs, my family, or my shopping habits… but I’ve made it a point this year to do more sharing about my creative goals, playlists, and athletic pursuits with students, inviting them to tell me about their own passions. And, of course, I’ve brought up Dante a couple more times. It translates to a greater appreciation between teacher and student, which is another way of saying higher achievement.