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Opinions expressed are those of the author.
I recently followed a chat that started from the claim that all a student needs to be is liked. That all they need is a connection or relationship or positive interaction with an adult. Initially I thought of course I agree, but after some time of that idea rattling around in my head I changed my mind. I don’t think I agree. I would still agree that connections can and do make a huge difference. I just don’t think they make THE difference.
I work in alternative education. I work with really challenging kids. THOSE KIDS. The ones who didn’t make it in other schools. The ones who know incarceration and the system. The ones who know trauma and abuse and pain and abandonment. The ones who know failure. These kids don’t like me when they enter my classroom. They don’t like anyone. They don’t care if I like them. They are quite used to no one liking them. They don’t care about grades and learning and futures. They don’t plan. They don’t have goals. They don’t dream. They don’t have hope.
So I have to connect with them and I have to do it fast. I have found that I relate to these kids. I get them. Maybe it’s my own quirkiness or off-beat sense of humor or stubborn streak or willingness to do about anything to make that connection – smile, laugh, sing, dance, tell jokes, laugh at bad jokes, pat backs, give hugs, and just never stop trying. They push me away, but I come back. Again. And again. And again. Until finally they push back a little less, and if I’m lucky, they stop pushing back at all. That is connection and it is the absolute first step. No question. It will be the foundation for everything that comes next.
Next. That is the thing that I think has gotten lost. It’s not the connection that’s the most important thing. It’s the next. Jump into any education chat or conversation and you will hear the word connection and relationships, but it’s becoming this idea that if I make a connection with my student then that is all they need. If I care enough or like them enough or love them enough or if we talk enough or have enough in common then that will make a difference to my students. And it will. It will make A difference, but I don’t think it’s enough to make THE difference.
We need the next. They need the next. Think about the process of building a house. When carpenters build a house they build the foundation first. It is what supports everything. But once they have a foundation, they keep going. They build the walls and the roof and they put in duct work and plumbing and electrical. It’s finished off with paint and flooring and appliances and décor. There are so many steps that come after the foundation. There are so many steps to building a completed house. If they stopped after the foundation, then they don’t have a house. They just have a piece of concrete.
We, as educators, we need to build the house for our students. Let’s build a foundation. Let’s work hard and quickly to make connections and build relationships, but then let’s not stop there. Let’s do something with that foundation. Let’s give them walls and a roof – a framework to support them. We can teach social skills and coping skills. How to enter a classroom and take turns and ask for help. How to approach tasks independently and with their peers. How to adjust to different procedures and expectations. How to make mistakes. How to celebrate successes. How to work through problems. How to find an answer. How to ask for help. How to be a successful student but also a successful member of society. Let’s give them all the systems inside that house – let’s bring that house to life. We can teach them academics. We can fill in the gaps while giving opportunities for new growth. It may look different than how other students learn and they may need to express what they know differently, but they will learn. They will learn mistakes aren’t failures. They will learn to try again. They will experience success. Knowledge is a powerful thing. So is confidence. Let’s decorate their house. Personalize it. Make it belong to each individual student. Let them be creative. Think outside the box. Celebrate individuality. Find their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Let’s make that house their own.
Let’s do something with the connections we work so hard to make. Let’s use those foundations we’ve built. Let’s push our students out of their comfort zone. Let’s move past easy and complacent and good enough. Let’s set high expectations. Let’s push them to struggle and even fail. But then let’s teach them to persevere and to adapt and to overcome. It will be hard for them and us. We will all get tired and experience frustrations, but it’s what they need. And they will be okay because we will there. We will support them and guide them and believe in them and teach them. We use that connection that we created in the beginning to be our foundation to support everything we do next.
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