Originally Posted on BehaviorFlip.com by Lindsey Acton on Nov. 15, 2021, and Revised on Jan. 12, 2022, for Teaching Channel use.
For fifteen years and fifteen days, I had the most incredible job in the world. I occupied what I will always think of as the most honorable and the most important role anyone could ever take on. I was a teacher. And I was a really darn good one. I loved what I did. I loved who I did it with. And my kids, for the most part, loved me, too. There’s nothing in the world better, I don’t think, than loving what you do, and receiving that love in return. And for a long time, that was enough for me.
The entire duration of my teaching career, relationship building has been my superpower. I don’t have many of these “powers.” You see, I can’t solve complex math equations. I can’t build towers from wood or steel. I can’t write musical compositions or direct bands to make beautiful formations or anything like that. But I can make teenagers believe in themselves. And I can show them the power they possess within themselves when sometimes the only thing they are able to see is darkness. Not many people can say that, and I don’t take this ability lightly. If you too possess this skill, it’s something you shouldn’t take lightly, either. When you couple that with my ability to read books and write papers, it worked pretty well in an English classroom.
So, for fifteen years and fifteen days, I had some incredibly good times making kids do things they never thought they could do. And that’s why I’m writing this piece. Because for a long time, showing kids their superpowers by using my own was enough for me. It was more than enough.
When my own son was born, I longed for more time with him. I actually physically ached for it, and I realized that it was probably time for me to figure out some new ways to reach students, and I discovered, through the writing of my own book (Throwing Rocks), a passion for supporting my fellow teachers. This support didn’t require me to become an administrator, which I had zero interest in; instead, I was able to really focus on what mattered: being there for teachers by sharing what mattered the most.
I’ve been so fortunate to show up for teachers in many different ways, but one of the ways that I love to share with and support teachers is by guiding them in how to manage a classroom through fostering positive relationships with their students, and helping them to realize that the movement toward, and the increase in, achievement will come along with those relationships, but that it will come later—and that it is OK for it to happen in just that order. No need to rush. It will happen.
Not that long ago, I left the classroom—the daily grind of plan, teach, grade, repeat. I did so with the intention of being and creating the types of support systems for young teaching professionals that I never had at the beginning of my career. I did so with the intention that if this support system were to exist, perhaps teachers would make the decision to stay, rather than to leave, which has been the case far too often of late, resulting in a historic mass exodus from our profession (#thegreatresignation), one that will be generational, and one that we will not easily, and perhaps not in my lifetime or yours, see a full recovery from.
In the role I currently occupy, I am working with about six thousand brand-new teachers to build, from the ground up, a program to support these young professionals in the first three years of their teaching careers, with one clear objective: to keep them in the classroom. Over and over again in the last 75 days, what I have heard from these teachers, and what I bet I would hear if you and I were sitting together, is that classroom management is one of the top issues that young teachers are facing.
In fact, I would argue that classroom management (during a pandemic, especially) is one of the top issues that any educator currently faces in his or her life as a teacher—especially as he or she learns how to be a teacher. As I travel around the state and train new teachers and talk with teachers who have been doing this work for years, a common theme is emerging this year: classroom management is different now. No one is really sure why. No one is really sure how to fix it. But everyone knows that it’s a struggle.
The top issue? Like—the issue teachers are dealing with the most often? Well, think about it. Yes. After all, your face time with your students is the largest part of your day, so your management is probably one of the most important skills you must master as a teacher. And because COVID has thrown this once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) wrench in our careers, many of us are re-learning what it means to manage a group of students.
Classroom management depends on solid and intentional relationship building with your students. This is the first and most important element of successful management in your room. Sure, students need to know what to expect when they walk into your classroom, so a clear sense of procedure and routine needs to be established as well. But I would also argue that a student must feel safe and comfortable when they share your space.
I recently asked some former students to comment on why relationship building mattered so much to them. One student said, “I really feel like when I can feel comfortable with my teacher and joke around with them, I’m more excited to go to class and be in that environment. When you were at (school) I always loved going to your class because I knew I could talk to you about anything and have a fun conversation with you and not just have it be boring. And I would also try to pay attention and listen to you because it was someone I enjoyed being around. When I don’t have a bond with my teacher, I tend to not want to be in that class.”
When teachers take the time to relate to and bond with their students—even if it is as simple as saying things like, “I am so happy to see you today,” or smiling when students walk in, students notice these small gestures, and it goes a long way in making them feel comfortable and safe sharing that space, even if it’s for 50 minutes of their day. Being able to safely share space for even that short amount of time on a given weekday might be the only time of any day that a student feels comfortable, or experiences little-to-no conflict.
As teachers, we play an interesting and important role in what our students’ days look like. Giving them an opportunity to feel safe with an adult, to have a positive role model and a relationship with an adult that is not only safe, but that is built on trust and also sometimes on humor and laughter is a gift that not every child receives.
Another former student shared her feelings about relationship-based classroom management: “There is a lack of quality in learning when there is no relationship. I now look at and watch all of my teachers, hoping that they will want to build at least half of the relationships that you built with your students. If the teacher gets to know the student’s story and shows an interest in the student’s life, the student will, in return, care about what the teacher has to say.”
Relationships are two-sided. When a teacher takes the time to invest in students, students will do the same in return. About 15 months ago, my husband was diagnosed with an aggressive form of colorectal cancer, and at the time of his diagnosis, I was still in the classroom. At that time, my students saw more of my humanity I had ever allowed a group of teenagers to see, mostly because it was impossible to hide my fear and my tears. And do you know what they did? They responded to me with love—with the most incredible love I have ever seen and received from children in my life. I received hugs and cards, candles, blankets, candies, and just “we wanted to check on you” inquiries from them.
Do you know why?
Because we built a community. That’s why. Because we took the time to love on each other. To take care of each other. To put people before the curriculum. To make sure they knew that they mattered to me more than any book or paper ever could matter to me. Sure, we got our work done, and they wrote some great papers for my class. They did incredible work. But their work was NEVER more important than the mental health checks we did on Fridays, and it was never more important than a hug if someone needed it or a high five if someone got their dream part in the musical or started varsity in basketball for the first time or needed to close my door and scream because they were upset.
Their papers, friends, were never more important than their humanity. And I think, so often in education, we get caught up in scores and rubrics and grades that we forget that these people are children. They are someone’s babies. They are someone’s most prized possessions. Remember when I told you that it all changed for me when my son was born? That’s when I knew I had to find another way? It’s true.
It changed because I looked out across my classroom at a sea of someone else’s babies and I realized that someone felt about all of those children the exact way that I felt about my son. So, if I was good at building relationships before—and I was—I committed to being great at it after he was born. Because I knew that if someone ever treated him as a test score or a category on a rubric, it would break my heart.
And so, my challenge to you is this: put those young people first, and realize that the achievement will come. There is no need to rush it. It will happen. This pandemic has changed them. It has changed all of us. It has forever altered how and where and when we communicate with one another. Teach them how to be people again. Look them in the eyes and tell them that they matter. Remind them they matter until they believe you. Make sure they know that you are glad to see them today. Smile at them. Ask them how they are doing—and mean it. Because, chances are, you’re the only teacher today who has.