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How Constructive Connections Can Change Your Classroom

Dec 14, 2018 2018-12-14

By Heidi Crumrine

I have received more apologies from former students in the drive-through of fast food restaurants than I can count. The scene is always the same: I place my order, feel a bit embarrassed that my desire to eat local and organic food has been foiled once again, and then pull up to get my order. I roll down my window and hear, “Mrs. C!” Each time, I recognize the face—older than what I remember, but always the same smile. Almost immediately, the words start cascading out of their mouth: “I’m so sorry for how I acted in high school.”

My reply is always the same: “Don’t worry about it; I’m just glad to see you.” Regardless of who the student is or how he or she behaved, I always mean it. I really am glad to see them, and I really am unphased by whatever transgressions may have occurred in the past.

The reality is that these young people have been out of high school for a handful of years and are often in school part-time while also holding down a variety of jobs. They likely struggled in high school, are now struggling in life, but are trying to figure it all out. My heart always swells with love and pride for them and I often wish I could reach through the window and lessen the struggle, but there’s a line of cars behind me and I am only one of many.

Each time, my former student offers to give me a free drink, and each time I say “You don’t have to do that.” They always insist, and I always take the drink (it is free after all).

Every time this happens, I pull away and reflect on what transpired when they were my student. Sometimes, the kid really was challenging and the apology makes me smile. Sometimes, the kid was just a typical teenager and the apology makes me laugh. Sometimes, the kid had the most heartbreaking story, and I’m just grateful that he or she is alive, working, and remembers who I am.

Regardless of the story, I am always left thinking about the connection we shared and the fact that years later, it still remains. What happened in my classroom that led this young person to apologize so many years later?

I have to believe it is my desire to connect with my students in ways that allow them to feel safe in the classroom. I ask them how their weekend was, I ask for movie suggestions, and I send postcards home telling them I’m proud of them. In short, it is about more than the content I teach. Of course, a rigorous curriculum that well equips students for success after high school is important, but they’re never going to engage with that curriculum if they are emotionally disengaged from the classroom. If I can find ways to personalize the content, offer choice, or make it more relevant to their lives then they’ll be more likely to engage with the material.

Structuring my curriculum this way does not permit my students to walk all over me. It does not mean that I have no structure or that I want to be their best friend. It means that I love them.

It means that when a student who has been truant for weeks finally comes to class, instead of saying, “Where have you been?” I say, “I’m glad you’re here; I’ve been worried about you.” It means when I have a student who seems angry, I recognize that it is likely not about me; this student still needs my love and support. It means that I see challenging behaviors, look for the root cause, and show kindness instead of approaching a student with anger and rigidity.

The longer I teach, the more deliberate I am in telling my students what they mean to me. The longer I teach, the more I believe that educators need to develop positive relationships with students so that they feel comfortable with the academic skills we are trying to teach. Education means nothing to our students if we don’t take notice of what makes them human beings. It can be so easy to get caught up in talking about performance-based assessments, the Common Core, and rigor—all of which are important—but we sometimes lose sight of the humanity of the children who enter our classrooms.

As our society becomes more fractured through hate crimes, mass shootings, and a genuine sense of polarization and division, it becomes increasingly important that we connect with our students and foster empathy within those relationships.

Plus, I never know who I might find when I pull up to that drive-through window.

Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, is an English teacher at Concord High School in Concord, NH. She has been teaching for sixteen years, including three years in the New York City Public Schools. She has a B.S. in Family Studies from the University of New Hampshire, an M.A.T. in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and an M.Ed. in Reading Instruction from Grand Canyon University. She writes “Today’s Teacher,” a monthly column about issues in education for the Concord Monitor, has been featured on Google for Ed’s “Lessons from the Teachers of the Year” YouTube series, and in the upcoming NWEA podcast, “Lessons from the Classroom.” Heidi fiercely and unapologetically believes that our public schools are the great equalizer. She finds great joy in working with young people and seeing them find success on their journey to adulthood.

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