I got an email this week that completely caught me by surprise. One of my favorite students (yes, teacher's have favorite students...anyone who says otherwise is lying. The trick is to convince all of your students that he/she is the favorite so no one's feelings get hurt. After talking with some of my past students, I'm pretty sure I was successful with that because when interviewed separately, most of them thought that I secretly liked them the best. I rule!...Uh, where was I? Oh, yes. Favorites...) One of my past faves hunted me down on the interwebs and sent me an email this week. Since I'm not teaching this year, I haven't been able to keep in touch with many of my students because I lost all of their emails in the school email system which the county shut down on me less than a week after the school year ended. (Thanks, County, for all of the advanced notice you gave me on that! You've never been proactive with anything valuable in the three years that I worked there. I thought I'd at least have a month!) I had the foresight to give last year's class my personal email address at the end of the year, but previous classes didn't get the memo. Fortunately they seem to be tech savvy enough to crack the code and find me anyway.
This particular student and I had bonded right away. She was absolutely brilliant (I teach a lot of gifted kids...I guess you should know that), and she seemed much more mature than the average fifth grader. She also had this amazing sense of humor that far eclipsed her peers. She was a tremendous writer and a bit of a rebel. She was going through some really rough times at home (lots of family drama), and somehow I became her trusted confidante. She'd never tell me things in class or talk to me directly about what was going on, but she'd send me emails late at night to fill me in on what she was thinking/feeling and what was happening around her. I quickly understood that it wasn't something she wanted to talk about at school -- that was her escape -- but I appreciated her including me in her life, and I sent back encouraging emails expressing my support of her as she dealt with her situation.
The latest email was quite a surprise to read, and I was so happy to receive it. She filled me in on all of the drama she's currently experiencing in middle school and the books she's recently read. Most impressive of all, however, is that she sent me a document of a story that she's writing -- not for any class assignment, but because she likes to write. She wanted me to read it over and give her some feedback on it.
And the story so far is amazing.
I think a lot of teachers make the mistake of distancing themselves from their students. Maybe it's a coping mechanism because the challenges of this profession are so large and school bleeds into our personal lives enough as it is. Some boundaries are definitely important and may be personally defined. I, for example, categorically won't let my students become friends with me on Facebook because I want to keep that space reserved for my adult friends. When I rant or make snarky comments or confess my love for Don Draper and Mad Men, my students - past and present - aren't really my intended audience for that. Still, I want them to know that I'm human, and I have a personality. When we're walking through the hall, I'm more than happy to talk to them about my hand cramping up because I was playing Guitar Hero the night before. When I'm teaching reading, I don't mind sharing the story of my latest excursion to Barnes & Noble (oh, Barnsey...this reminds me that I think I need to visit you again soon...). When we're talking about writing, I relay stories to my kids about my own life as a writer -- whether it's work I've done on a blog, an article, or the novel I'm trying to write. I want my students to know that I live and use the values and concepts I teach in class, and they need to get to know me to really get that. I'm not saying that you need to go out of your way to "be cool" or try to be their best friend. But kids know what's real, and what's not. If you're genuine with them, they'll be much more willing to open up to you. One of the reasons that I think I've had academic and classroom management success with my students is because I try to build lasting relationships with them. I love it when they're the ones actively seeking my feedback. I can have incredibly high expectations for them because I know that they won't want to let me down. They're more motivated and more engaged in challenging situations because they know that I care, so they need to, also.
I think that's one of the secrets of being a great teacher that no one really tells you. In fact, more often, I've heard just the opposite from my more experienced colleagues. Still, when I think about my favorite teachers growing up, I immediately think of the ones that I got to know as people, not as task masters or subject savants. The best teachers package that all up into one inseparable whole, and that's what I try to do with each student I encounter -- even after they've left my classroom and moved onto middle school.