Saturday, February 12, 2011

Relationship advice.

So, a few weeks back I interviewed a principal for a class project. I had promised the interview would be 5-10 minutes, but we ended up really hitting it off, and the talk lasted a good half hour. Plus, he made the mistake of giving me mountain dew, and as someone who avoids high fructose corn syrup, I was in a state of hyperawareness and hyper-everythingelseness.

One of the core values he said he sought out in teachers was the ability to build relationships with students, creating a framework for learning. That really jived with me. He told me that he could go into a German classroom, not knowing a word of German, and still be able to teach it if he was able to build a relationship with students and use that as a scaffolding for the learning process.

For the longest time, I had been hyperfocused on external factors in learning, such as high levels of content knowledge, interesting lesson plans, and incorporating technology into the classroom. Him flat out telling me that the bottom line is the students was a nice wake up call, and a reminder to me of why I'm doing this.

Following that, a parent came into our class to tell us about her experience with schools, and she pointed out the value of teachers that genuinely care about their students, and make an effort to change their lives for the better. She referenced several teachers she stayed in contact with over the years, and the impact they made on her throughout her life.

I think that is a really important part of teaching that gets shoved under the carpet, especially due to boundary issues. Still, I have had a few teachers that changed my life, and I have since stayed in touch with them, occasionally meeting up for lunch or exchanging emails. They were role models, mentors, and helped me grow as a person, not only in the classroom, but in my life. Sadly, I think a lot of teacher programs are discouraging that due to boundary issues, and I completely understand why. Still, it was good to finally hear one person state the importance of building those lasting relationships.

That's not to say I want to have a lasting relationship with every one of my students. I want to build good relationships with them in order to help them learn. But if I manage to really make a difference in a kid's life, it would be an honor if s/he let me know when s/he got into a college, made it into grad school, or did something amazing. Teachers put a lot of time and effort into kids, I think it's only right that they occasionally hear back on their investments. Hell, I think moments like that are what would keep me sane as a teacher, hearing back from students 5 years down the line to find out that they've been accepted into MIT, and I helped inspire them in that direction. That would feel amazing.

Still, I completely understand the reason for teaching programs not really encouraging, or even bringing this up. Due to all the sexual abuse, everybody is terrified of the idea of a female student emailing a male teacher about personal things, and rightfully so. Bad things do happen. But I think it is important to use prudence, and, when appropriate, be willing to keep in touch with students.

In closing, I am reminded of Jeff Howell. He was a teacher that changed my life forever, and has inspired me to become a science teacher. In some ways, it could be said that he had boundary issues- he always touched people when he was talking to them, something my profs have told me never to do. Still, it was never inappropriate, it was always a hand on the shoulder, and given that he was a wrestling coach, it somehow worked. I never, ever felt uncomfortable with it- rather the opposite. As someone who was bullied regularly, it was the only physical contact I got that wasn't painful. He encouraged me to follow my passion for astrophysics, and would listen to my weird theories about black holes and subspace during lunch and after school, where I was a regular in his classroom. He once told me that, in the teacher's lounge, I was brought up as a weird kid, and he told them that he thought I was brilliant.

That moment changed my life. I was vindicated. After studying astrophysics and astronomy for so long, and never being acknowledged, someone finally recognized me. I madly pursued theoretical physics from that point on, and developed a life long passion for science, thanks to that moment where an amazing teacher put his hand on my shoulder and told me he thought I was brilliant. He built a relationship with me, and thanks to that relationship, I learned more in that science class than any other class, and decided to further pursue science afterward.

I ran into his cousin a few weeks ago. He's also becoming a science teacher through the program. After seeing his last name, we both shared that Jeff Howell was our mutual inspiration for becoming a teacher. I told him how much he changed my life, and he later shared that with Jeff, who, upon hearing them, was fighting back tears. I later called him and we talked a bit, although due to poor reception the conversation was awkward, but we agreed to meet up during the summer, as teachers and friends, and share lunch and classroom management tips.

Mr. Howell was not my friend when he was my teacher. He was a teacher who, through building a relationship with me, got me into science and helped steer me in a really positive direction for my life. Now that I am an adult, I consider him a friend, and someone I owe an infinite debt to for helping me find the wonder in science. I can only hope to be that for my kids.

As a teacher, I want to not only teach kids the content matter, I want to teach them how to be better people. I want to be a role model, a mentor, and an ally. And through this, I hope they'll find a passion for science too, as I did. And honestly, I think most teachers want this. It's probably what they find the most rewarding part of their job- hearing back from an ex-student to find out how much their classes meant to them. One letter like that probably makes up for 200 angry parent calls.

It's been good to remember why I want to do all this.


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