Connect with Each Student’s Humanity

When dealing with a student whose behavior is a challenge, first ask yourself if you have a relationship with the student. When you build a relationship, you’ll notice a huge difference in behavior.

Fifteen years ago, Mark was a student in my fourth-grade class. At the beginning of the year, he yelled out, interrupted others and did not do his work. Our school counselor told me Mark had been held back in first grade and lived in poverty.

Mark and I had our roles: He was the defiant student and I, the angry disciplinarian. After an unproductive parent-teacher conference, I decided to change my approach. When he came to class the following Monday, I simply said, “Hi, Mark.” He looked at me in horror and asked, “What did I do wrong now?”

It was then that I realized the only time I talked with Mark was when he was in trouble. What an awful thing to think about! How would I feel about spending 10 months with someone who talked with me only to correct my behavior?

It’s funny to think that we educators forget our students are human. While we know them as learners, we forget that they are people with complete and engaging lives as complex and complicated as our own. The more we understand our student’s reality, the more impact we make on his life and learning. And the more impact that student makes on ours.

I regularly engage my students in non-academic conversation. We discuss their families, what happens when they get home, pets, thoughts about parents, their religion and their culture, heritage and ethnicity. We discuss where they came from, what they want to be when they grow up, their wishes, hopes and dreams.

It’s through these conversations that we connect. Once my students know that I care about them as people, they strive to show me that they care right back, through their hard work, their effort and their loyalty.

You may ask: “How do you make time for this?” By occasionally having lunch with my kids. It’s amazing what barriers break down when you eat together. That’s why Mix It Up at Lunch Day is so powerful.

Connecting with my students means greeting every one every morning with “the H’s”: a genuine hello, and a high-five, hug or handshake. It means having students write in daily journals on whatever topics they want, and me reading and responding to them. There are a myriad of ways this can happen, but it must happen.

In my work as a mentor of beginning teachers, discussions often include challenging students. My first question is always: “What is your relationship like with this student?” Follow-up questions include: “How do you communicate with this student? Does this student know you like him?” The answers often surprise us and lead us to deeper understandings of our practice.

As for Mark, I started talking with him casually, for a minute or two, every day. I learned he loved skateboarding and knights and castles and only ate regularly when he was at school. By the end of the week, he admitted he didn’t know what a sentence was. By the end of the month, he began making academic progress and nearly stopped disrupting the class. At the end of the year, he left me a homemade thank you card, written in complete sentences.

What a victory! And all because I related to him as a person.

Hiller is a mentor to first- and second-year teachers in Oregon and a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.