Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.
Stephen Covey from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
My father is a “people person.” Folks just like him. People who don’t even want to like him can’t help but like him because, well, he’s a likeable guy. I’ve never heard him say anything bad about anyone else and whether it’s the man who parks his car or the waitress at IHOP, he treats everyone with the same level of respect and dignity. My father understands the power of building positive relationships and I’ve been watching him do it my entire life.
Growing up, I wasn’t the most personable teenager and my father I used to butt heads at least once a week. Okay. Maybe twice…or more. Part of the reason for our many father-daughter feuds was we were exactly alike; still are. In fact, on more than one occasion, my mother has commented that all she did was give birth to me. “You really belong to your father.” I’d roll my eyes because who in the world would want to be like him. And not only was he the bane of my teenage existence (or so I thought at the time) but all of my friends liked him. ALL of them. They thought he was the nicest, coolest, most wonderful dad in the world and it irritated me to no end. “But you don’t have to LIVE with him!” I felt so betrayed.
One day, when I wasn’t contributing heavily to my parents’ angst, my father and I had an actual conversation that didn’t involve me sucking my teeth or him putting me on punishment. “You know Chantrise building positive relationships is important. In fact, it’s the most important skill you can have. If you can master relationship building, everything else will fall into place.” The reason behind the talk has slipped my mind, but I have never forgotten the wisdom it contained. In fact, it is one of the precepts by which I live my life. It’s also the foundation for how I teach.
As a high school teacher, I interact with teenagers from the time I walk in the building until the time I leave. They arrive at school with their issues, some as benign as “I got dirt on my sneakers” others more malignant like “My mother is dying from cancer” but it is my job to teach them, regardless of what weight they are carrying when they walk through my door. It is at these moments that teaching becomes a challenge because whatever my students are going through immediately takes precedent over anything I am trying to teach. I don’t care if I am standing on a desk with my hair on fire belting out every line of Romeo and Juliet to the latest Beyoncé song, the only thing they can think about is who said what to whom about them on Tumbler. Yet, teaching, and more importantly learning, still has to happen
When I have the opportunity to work with teachers on building relationships with their students, I share with them a few teenaged truths:
#1: I will have you sized up within the first 60 seconds of meeting you and decide, in that moment, whether you are real or fake.
#2: I will base every manifestation of my behavior for the rest of the year on what I discover within that first 60 seconds.
#3: You are an adult so therefore you are the enemy.
#4: I don’t talk to strangers.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And here’s the logic behind them:
You are a stranger. Strangers can’t be trusted. Therefore, you can’t be trusted.
Most students learned this truism when they were very little and that understanding doesn’t go away when they get older. If you want to know why your students act the way they do, it might be because they don’t know you.
And yes, I hear you. “What do you mean they don’t know me? I’m their teacher. My name is on their schedule and on my classroom door. I see them every day!” Yup. And they still have no idea who you are.
Point #1: Don’t Be A Stranger On the first or second day of school, I do an activity with my students called “Turn to Your Neighbor.” It’s an ice breaker that allows them to learn about each other and more importantly, in this case, me. Students are instructed to turn to their neighbor and share the 3 things they care about most in their lives using the 1st initial of their 1st, middle, and last name. I always model this for them because a) it allows me to show them what to do and b) they get to learn some facts about me. (In case you’re curious my name is Chantrise Sims Holliman so my three are C=Child (my daughter), S=Students (all of them past, present, and future), and H=Husband) The “S” is usually the one that gets them because I show one of my wedding pictures with me, my husband, and 21 of my students. They were the ushers, hosts, and hostesses at my wedding. J
Point #2: R.E.S.P.E.C.T Find Out What it Means to THEM Much like Aretha Franklin’s song, this is an oldie but a goodie. Respect and trust must travel on a two-way street between teacher and student. Far too often I have seen teachers disrespect students and then call “foul” when they get back what they gave. They may not always act like it but teenagers are human beings and should be treated as such.
Point #3: Monkey See, Monkey Do Students are perceptive. They take EVERYTHING we do into consideration. A raised eyebrow, a sarcastic comment, a remark under our breaths can hinder any relationship we’re trying to build. When we act out of turn, we give them permission to do the same. The old adage “Do as I say, not as I do” is no longer valid. For this generation of students it is increasingly “I’ll do what you do.”
Point #4: Closed Mouths Don’t Get Fed If you want to know how to fix your car? Ask someone who knows how to fix a car. Want to know how to fix your computer? Ask a computer expert. So, if you want to know how to build relationships with your students (Wait for it…) ask them. One of the biggest complaints students have is that as teachers, we act as if we know everything. We don’t ever think we can learn something from them. But, the truth is, most of the time we don’t ask simply because we are afraid of what the answers might be. See, teachers are fragile and for many of us, our classroom is our last safe haven; the one place where we run the show. However when we ask the questions of our students AND we are open to their responses, we cease to be strangers. We become vulnerable. We become human. We become people students can trust and that is the beginning of any good relationship.