I’m a pretty social person. I think that’s one of the reasons I like teaching. I mean, I get to socialize with kids and colleagues all day. We talk about books, writing. We tell jokes and share funny cat videos. Actually, it sounds a lot like my monthly book club. Hmm, now that I say this, I’m realizing how fun my day really is.
Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes teaching is hard (you probably know that, huh?). Like, really hard. Sometimes the struggle is so real, that I want to give up. Sometimes I feel hopeless, disillusioned, even useless.
But you know what usually saves me on days like that? My relationships. On those days I might sit at my desk and eat more than the one piece of chocolate I have allotted for my daily afternoon pick-me-up. As a matter of fact, I’ve probably got a pile of Dove wrappers steadily growing by my desk calendar long before “afternoon”. But the saving grace comes in the form of 22 teenagers who greet me with smiles, questions, even grunts. It’s like they know when I’m having a bad day and they want to help me out of it. Last year I ended the year with a mild concussion. The kids were awesome. They’d ask about my headache every day. They toned down their end-of-the-year craziness. Essentially, they looked out for me.
Obviously, we don’t begin the year like this. It takes weeks, excruciating weeks, for us to build that relationship. Seventeen year olds can be some tough nuts to crack! Heaven forbid they laugh at my jokes for the first few weeks of school (I mean, come on, I’m funny!) but gradually they’ll let a smile slip, and before too long, we’re all hootin’ and hollerin’ about my re-enactment of Gatsby’s awkward reunion with Daisy or the way Lenny walks without swinging his arms. They come around eventually because they finally, finally figure out that I care.
Sometimes it can be difficult because I’m not a sunshine and rainbows sort of person. I’m extremely pragmatic and sarcastic. I don’t give out hugs (the kids learn how special my Prom and Graduation Hugs are over the course of the year). I’m not the teacher who knows every little detail of every kid’s life. Nor do they know every little detail of mine. But they do know I want them to be successful. They do know that I care about their lives, even if I don’t know who they’re currently dating or how many siblings they have.
I wish I could explain how I build these relationships, but I don’t really know (although I’m going to try to pay more attention to the process this year). Basically I’m relentless. Eventually, you WILL enjoy this class or ELSE. Haha, okay, not exactly. But the kids figure out that I’m not giving up on them or on the class in general. We don’t have “free time” but during any down minutes, I share stories or ask what’s up with them. I let them know I want to hear their opinions and that I know they have valuable thoughts in their heads.
As an English teacher, I’ve got it pretty easy. We are able to learn a lot about each other through our discussion of literature, articles, and poetry. We are able to share our stories as they relate to the characters we study. We are able to empathize and commiserate. These experiences help us to build a community. And as the year goes on, it gets stronger and stronger.
And finally, I smile, or at least try to smile, a lot. When the kids come in, when they leave, when they answer correctly, when they don’t.
Building relationships has gradually become easier (or more effortless, at least) as the years have progressed. I feel more confident in my teaching at this point, so I can take the time to focus on the relationships more than on the content.
As I start a new year with new kids on Thursday, I will be nervous and excited. Nervous about the coming anxiety-ridden weeks of awkwardness and excited about what comes after that: a fun, engaging, entertaining suped-up book club. 🙂
Happy new school year, folks!