Educating is about building relationships and this is what makes it emotionally demanding. Our students need us to be present, to be with them, to recognise and name what they either cannot or will not name. When I say that I work with young people, I mean that we work together, side by side. We go through concepts, ideas, information, and assessments together. We are often not doing the same thing, but we do it together.
One of the textbooks assigned in my education methods courses as an undergrad was Discipline with Dignity by Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler. It spoke of respect, responsibility, of treating young people first and foremost as people. This sounds funny to say, but think about it. Educators have a lot of power and that power can build a child up or totally, utterly cut them down.
In the words of Haim Ginott, words that still give me chills:
“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.”
And this means that teachers must recognise the human role they play in the classroom. We are all beings with dignity and honouring this is critical in the way we treat others – who they are, what matters to them, and the demands we place on their time and energy. Throughout my career, students have come to me just to talk. I’ve heard, “You’re the only one I trust” more times than I can count. I’ve been thanked for saving lives years after the fact. How hard is it, really, to treat a young person the way all people should be treated?
But it is hard. All meaningful relationships are hard. Doing this requires vulnerability and courage. It requires understanding that we are in this together and this can be a difficult position for teachers who do not understand that educating is about relationships. Students know when we are authentic and they know when we are disingenuous. Like all of us, they respond to what is genuine and protect themselves from what is false. I want my students to be good people and this requires me to walk beside them.
At the beginning of this school year, I finally had the chance to get to know a group of young men who had made cafeteria duty a miserable experience the two years before. I smiled while greeting them and said to the class, “To those of you who I have encountered, this is a great opportunity to prove that you’ve grown up.” And they have. Each interaction that we have with young people is a new interaction. Each day really is a new day. If we are going to work together for a year or two, we need to set ourselves up for doing so. I’ve learned to take a deep breath each time I address a question or comment from a student who just grates on me. He deserves the same chances, the same positive attention, as anyone else, time after time. This is how we learn, and I want my students to leave my class knowing more about themselves and the world around them than they did before.
When we feel valued for who we are, we respond. We know this as adults and it is ever more true of young people. A smile, making eye contact, tone of voice, and gestures are all part of communication. Just like how we might know how someone feels about us without them saying so, students know this, too. We like to know someone is looking out for us. This is why teachers should pay attention when a student gets new shoes, a haircut, or looks like they’re having a tough day. It’s a powerful thing to close the laptop and look young people in the eye when having a conversation, or to sit on the same side of the desk that might otherwise act as a barrier. When we sit side-by-side, we are working together. Each member of the classroom community matters, so take the time to do the small things that set a tone.
These are emotional investments that make what we do real rather than abstract. Educating is about building relationships. It is work. It is time intensive, meaningful, deeply fulfilling, and it has the power to change lives. Young people are worth it.