Monday, July 6, 2015

Connecting Beyond the Curriculum

"I have no desire to see these kids as anything but my students. I don't want to go to their birthday parties, soccer games, or anything. I want to teach them and go home."

Winggirl and Mr. B
Her end of year quote: "You flew the whole way with me"
Shocking quote right? This was not something that came from my lips; it was a statement that a fellow
teacher made to me the other day. I highly respect and like this fellow educator, but was very taken aback by this statement. Between this quote and last week's #TMchat, I feel that a post on connecting with each student individually was timely.

I do not currently have children. Well, that's not true. I have 48 kids. None of them are biologically related to me, but I think of my past two years' classes as my own kids. Students often ask me who my favorite student is. I always respond, "You are." Their eyes light up as they exclaim, "Really?!" to which I respond, "You are absolutely one of my 48 favorite students of all time!"

Let's be honest, as teachers, we are inclined to have some students who may be seen as our "favorites" because they do the work, are well mannered, and not academically behind. I'll admit that sometimes I've fallen into wishing all my students were like that. Just as immediately, I regret thinking that. All students are unique and we have a responsibility to love and support them equally.

Working with Jack after school.
Notice his beaming smile.
Allow me to share the story of Jack (all names in this article will be changed.) He was actually removed from one fourth grade class and put into mine because the other teacher couldn't stand his "disrespect." Jack lives down the street from me. Last year, he switched schools and witnessed his five-year-old cousin pass away in a car accident. However, I never saw an ounce of disrespect from him. Did he complete his work in a timely manner? No. But do you blame him? School is a place where he was supposed to feel safe, and his teacher constantly sent him into the hall for "disrespect" (which I later found out was just refusal to do worksheets.) When I volunteered to take him in, I told my principal that my goal for him was not going to be academic; I wanted him to come to school with a smile and learn to love learning.

In my classroom, he thrived. No, he did not become a model student and did require some discipline. His background made him rough around the edges, but I never gave up on him. By the end of the year, you would always find him smiling and a book in his hand. At home, I'd see him coming down the street and run inside to grab a whiteboard. We'd spend an hour on my porch together working on math. His only complaint was when I would have to go back inside. That's success to me.

I pretend I don't like hugs
from Fiona
I work hard to instill this individual attention with each student. Every morning, each student in my class is greeted with a handshake. I welcome them into my classroom and ask how their weekend or night was. I also insist that they ask me how mine was. Not for some egotistical desire, but for them to develop good interpersonal skills. Some students asked for hugs instead of handshakes, and I generally would aquest to their request. Former students came in this year expecting the handshakes to continue. Other former students write letters back and forth to me. These are the long lasting bonds that make teaching worth it. 

Nicknames are a big deal in my classroom too. Some are as simple as their last name, but others get more complicated and involved as "Fern," "Winggirl," "Nissan," or "The Great and Powerful Polkasaurus Rex." Each nickname stems from a personal connection I have with the student. The other students may not know the reasoning behind the names, but they love their own nicknames and each other's. By the end of the year, you would be hard pressed to find peers referring to each other by their given name. I was even assigned two nicknames by the students: "Big Dog" and "King B." I'm not complaining about either one!

Each student also has a classroom job. This serves a dual purpose; it allows me to escape banal tasks and makes each student feel responsible for the well-being of the class. Each job, no matter how trivial it may seem, it's vital to the smooth running of the class.

Laser tag for Branden's birthday
Often times, I spend my weekends going to sporting events to support my students. I try to make it to as many as I can and it is totally worth it. The students seem to appreciate every time I come. I also try to attend birthday parties when I am invited. Just last week I went to a laser tag birthday party. You would have thought I was One Direction walking in there. The student was so excited and I got to just have fun with him and all the other students. I've gone to campfires, birthday parties, movies, and even taken students to historical reenactments with me (and even run into some at battlefields!) Seeing students outside of school can paint them in a different light, and form a bond that just can't be formed in the school building.

Pre-campfire selfie with Natasha 
I implore you; don't have the mindset of the teacher who said the above quote. We have to connect with our students. Education is changing, for better and for worse. One thing that needs to stay constant is the compassion teachers can provide. Some students don't have strong support systems at home. We may be the only positive interaction they may have. Imagine the difference you can have if you connect with the students if you connect beyond the curriculum.

What's your story? How have you connected with students? How do you plan to in this upcoming year?


  1. Fantastic Justin - just plain fantastic. GONE are the days when we close our door and go home and turn off being teacher. That's impossible and so should the mindset of it's just a day job. I have loved hearing your stories, watching how you connect with your families and students in sincere ways throughout the year. Relationship building is #1 and these pictures are just plain fantastic! I cannot wait to see the ripple effects from your BIG GIANT CANNON ball splash impact you have!

    1. Thank you Geniene. It is continually refreshing to connect with people who feel as strongly as I do about the importance of relationships. Teaching is a true calling and must be treated as such.

  2. Justin,

    This was an excellent post and I think very much needed for a back to school much.

    Very similar to you each morning I greeted my students with a handshake/hug or whatever their preference was. We ended each day with community circle. In the beginning it was led by me but by the end the students were able to run the community circle. I sat on the floor we them and sometimes posed questions but it was often an opportunity for us to simply talk and build community. I also had class helpers which helped with management and everyone feeling invested in the classroom. Beyond school, I tried to make every birthday party and extracurricular activity that I could. I also saw many of my students at church on Sundays. I also dedicated some weekends out of the month to make sure I could take my children out on library or other excursions outside of their neighborhood.

    Additionally my students and their families had more personal number so that I could contact me at any point for homework help or anything else they needed.

    I spent so much time community building and plan on doing the same thing this year. I wanted each child to feel special and that I was there as coach to help them reach their full potential. As a community we all had high expectations. We had a lot of fun and learned a lot. Especially as a kindergarten teacher I take the role of infusing a love of school and learning into students as it is their first gateway into school. I think our sense of community really helped management and student engagement/investment. Although none of my children have ever been to UNC they all felt they were Tar Heels. I hope to do the same this year!

    1. Hi Alexis,

      Thanks for your response. I love the idea of an afternoon meeting. I originally started this last year, but somehow it ended. We still do morning meetings; perhaps it's time to bring back the afternoon.

      I love that you took students to trips! I've taken a few here and there to different places too. They feel so special with the extra attention.

      From when we first met on Teacher Talk Live, I could see your passion. I look forward to continued growth and collaboration!

  3. I feel drawn to comment and tell you of my students WillFoo, Reeb, Samantha-Jeff, Willbee and Petal (as in settle petal), amongst others. I know my students and they know that I am always there to help them to learn. We chat online anytime, and the small amount of time it takes me makes an enormous difference to them. Thank you for your awesome blog post!

    1. Thank you for the awesome replay! I love that you chat online with your students!