I’m not in my first year of teaching, so one would assume that my rose-colored glasses have long since been removed. However, in this year, my 19th year of teaching high school math, I feel like I am lucky to be teaching the 36 nicest kids at my school. This would be impossible, right? No teacher actually thinks that about every single student they are teaching. Perhaps I have left out a few key words: I feel like I am lucky to have realized that I am teaching the 36 nicest kids at my school. I’m just the one waking up to notice.
I do not mean to imply that all of my previous students have been less nice, or less enjoyable to teach. Rather, I often would find that a few kids were harder to teach, or harder to get to know, and I would just let that be a thing. I wasn’t going to be able to connect with that student, and I am realizing now that I gave up on my teacher-student relationship with that kid. This is such a loss; I know it’s a loss for me, and I can only imagine that having another adult to talk to, who isn’t your parents, and who can find the good in you, is only a benefit when you are navigating life as a teenager.
Part of me feels sad that it has taken me so long to come to this epiphany. Another part of me is ecstatic that I have reached this place. Of course, it coincides with me handing two courses over to a colleague who is returning from sabbatical. I have never felt so bereft as today when those classes met and I wasn’t there. This is silly, right? Yes and no.
I approached this year with the goal of helping my students know each other better, and for me to get to know them better. I mixed up seating a lot and adjusted whether we were working in pairs, small groups or in a full class discussion. We took time before going over homework to share our favorite (and least favorite) Halloween candy, so kids could have some low-key time together. In soliciting feedback from the kids, instead of feeling like we were being silly, they were enjoying these activities. I asked them directly if they knew everyone’s name in the room, and one person honestly shared that they weren’t sure if they did. This part of building connections is my job; navigating who sits where is seamless when the teacher forms the groups and only fraught with social challenges (or just plain lethargy) when the teacher doesn’t get involved.
I asked students to journal to me in a shared Google doc (inside of their shared math Google folder) about themselves, about a math article we all read, and about how they prepared for a recent test. They were open and honest in their writing, and I was honest as I wrote back to them. One student needed to be reminded about my expectations for the length of their responses. Another one wrote at length about their love of math and science. As I wrote back to them (changing to another text color), I felt like I was starting in on a conversation with them. I look forward to continuing this dialogue as our year continues.
So, in this 19th year, as I take the time to truly get to know each kid in the room as a person, I am so happy with what I am finding. Each student has their own story, their own interests, and their own challenges. In building this relationship much more deliberately than I have in the past, I find that I am treasuring each interaction, pondering it, and using it adjust my instruction almost on a minute-by-minute basis. I plan for the unit, the week, the day. In the moment as I circulate through the room to check in with students, it can become clear we need a bit more time to work on a particular problem, or more questions are raised about another idea. My class plans guide us but we adapt and adjust as we go. I have a vision of our class being on a sailboat together, and there are moments where we tip just a bit too far to one side as people are confused. We have to pull together to right the boat, and be able to proceed safely.
I know this sounds corny, but this approach has made me a much happier person this year. I was thrilled to have one student write to me recently, saying, “Thank you for being an amazing math teacher that always seems to be smiling. I swear, sometimes I’m so upset with the day, and then I walk into your class, and I’m suddenly happy again.” I think this is the same feeling I have as I go to class every single day, and it definitely has affected my outlook on life as a whole. I’m already looking forward to tomorrow!