Beyond the Classroom: Building Lifelong Relationships with Students
Beyond the Classroom: Building Lifelong Relationships with Students
I had the privilege of teaching high school social science and leading various schools as an administrator. In my time as an educator, I have made lifelong and lasting relationships with countless students and parents. What in the universe made me lucky enough to have so many accomplished and beautiful souls in my life? To answer this question, I reached out to the source, my former students. I am the type who will talk to anyone and everyone—shoppers beware, my niche is in grocery store lines. Yet, aside from this ability to hold a conversation, why in the world do these former students, now adults, still want to talk to me? Let’s take a look into what my former students had to say.
“You were always honest and kept it real with us”
Anyone who knows me knows I am not one for small talk, and I crave all things honest and real. As an adult, I found it my duty to always be honest and straightforward with my “kids.” For one hour a day, these impressionable minds were mine, and I couldn’t imagine not being honest with them. It was this honesty, this desire to be a voice of reason, that many students sought me out for in some of their most difficult times of adolescence.
Whether it was them crying about an unfaithful significant other, questioning their sexuality, or even sobbing to me as they told me they were pregnant, they knew I would always be honest with them. Life is not always rainbows and butterflies; it can be ugly and hard and filled with so much disappointment (if that is how you choose to look at it). I would be raw and tell them about my embarrassing moments and my hard times, or I would sit down on the floor and cry with them. I was never afraid to admit when I was wrong or too proud to apologize if I lost my temper.
I would ask them what the latest trends were, what new slang meant, or what music they would listen to, and I too would listen to it. I would get out of my comfort zone to try to strengthen my understanding of their likes and get to know them better. I have embarrassed myself at school assemblies doing choreographed dances, attempted to rap about history in class, and done a plethora of other things that may or may not have made it to YouTube. Why would I do all of this you ask? I did it because it is my “why.” My kids are my “why,” and good or bad, we kept it real.
“We weren’t ‘just’ kids”
A former student writes: “Yes, we were children and you were an adult, but you were able to gain our respect without intimidating us or making us feel small. I feel like you made personal connections that followed us beyond the classrooms or court and into adulthood because you genuinely cared about how we were doing. You were firm about our material and content but couldn’t wait to have that spare five minutes in class to discuss us. Whether it was what we had for dinner last night or our plans for the weekend, you were personal, as you opened to us as well. Talking about your family and your own experiences in school in order to relate to us left a huge impact.”
At the end of the day, we are just all big kids in a world filled with overwhelming emotions, but the difference is that we have life experience on our side and have learned how to hide it. Take a vested interest in your students. Go see them play the drums in their church band, or pull up a seat at the local restaurant when their family invites you to sit with them, or take that spare five minutes to just check in on how they are doing.
Whether in the classroom or as a building administrator, the first conversation I would have when introducing myself on the first day went like this: “Respect is a two-way street. I will always respect you and will never simply expect respect from you because of my title or because I am an adult. I will expect respect from you because I will always give it to you. If you’re having a bad day, talk to me and tell me so that we problem-solve.” To this day, I am still a firm believer that I must earn the trust and respect of everyone I meet, and I will do everything in my power to earn it. They are not just kids and we are not just adults—we are all human beings, and that alone is enough.
“You still make the time to connect”
Time is a precious commodity which we never seem to have enough of. I will admit that I often let life and work get the most of me and do not always take the time to do what I would like. However, I promised my kids that they would always hold a huge place in my heart forever, and this promise is what motivates me to always make the time. Educators, doctors, stay-at-home moms, NFL players, international DJs—if you can name it, I likely am blessed to have a former student who does it. Social media has been a game changer in allowing me to check in and keep up with former students; however, I do still text and call many of them too. With everything, including play dates with our children, dinners and lunches, and even their weddings and baby showers, I make the time.
These “kids” have their own successful and busy lives, but they still make the time for me. I often find myself to be completely dumbfounded as to how I am so lucky to have taught so many talented and spirited individuals, but more so, I am elated that they still want to have anything to do with me! In the end, they want to keep in touch because I helped them in some capacity, but they will never understand how they too have shaped me and impacted my soul.
“You had high (yet real) expectations”
I am 5’2”, and I walk fast all of the time just because. When people ask why I walk so fast, I always say, “What is the point in doing anything if not without purpose?” If you are going to do anything, do it to the best of your ability. We can always be more, do more, and be better. I always expected the most of my kids, and they knew that. However, what was best for one was not best for another, and I always respected and acknowledged their individuality. We cannot grow if we are not faced with challenge or discomfort, and I reminded my classes of that.
If students said they want to be an NBA player or an astronaut, I would never say they couldn’t do it; rather, I would ask them what their action plan to get there was. I would challenge their thoughts and actions and, in turn, have some very real and thought-provoking discussions. All that people ever need to believe in themselves is to have one other person to cheer them on and believe in them too.
In the end, whether it was my humor, my compassion, or my simply being in the right place at the right time, students found something within me that they needed. Be you—boisterous, competitive, or sarcastic—whatever or whoever you are, be the best at it because some “kid” needs you. Find the time and make the time, especially on those days when you’re wanting to run out of the building but you happen to see that quiet student from your second period class looking a little down. Check in constantly, and hold “mental health” days in class where you take a break from curriculum and just talk about life. Be available, be real, be vulnerable and raw, and just be unapologetically you—because someone needs you for yourself.
Looking for more ways to connect with your students? Check out this blog post on how to help students find and maintain enthusiasm all year long!