A few weeks ago, I was walking through one of our high school hallways at the bell change. As teenage bodies spilled out of doorways and began making their way to their next class, I was quickly surrounded by former students looking for hugs. After wrapping my arms around the first two or three, I heard an approaching student ask, “Can I get one, too?” I laughed and replied, “Of course. You belong to me.” This was immediately followed by a deep voice coming from down the hallway, “What about me? Do I belong to you, too?” I looked to see who the speaker was and saw Malcolm, a senior football star, who I had taught four years earlier in the eighth grade. “Yes, absolutely,” I began to respond, when I was interrupted by a different voice coming from the other direction, “I get one first. I belonged to her before you did.” Ethan, another senior, was right. I had taught him in the seventh grade. He had, indeed, belonged to me first.
They all belong to me. I suspect that most teachers feel this way about their students. After all, we spend time with them every day for most of a year, or in the case of Montessori teachers, for two or even three years. Our students belong to us because we know who they are.
And knowing who they are is critical for understanding what they need from us. What they need from us in order to make academic gains. What they need from us in order to develop personal responsibility and leadership skills. And what they need from us in order to get through difficult situations or interactions.
Being aware of the importance of knowing my students left me in a quagmire, however, at an important moment in my career. Ten years ago, when I was looking to re-enter the teaching profession after having been a stay-at-home mom for a number of years, many districts were using the Gallup Teacher Insight Survey as a screening tool. It was a timed multiple-choice test that presented different statements about teaching followed by four possible answers, one of which was theoretically the right one.
I struggled with this test. For nearly every question, I found myself wanting to respond with, “It depends.” But of course, “It depends,” was never one of the options. It felt nearly impossible to determine the correct answer without knowing more about the situation – who were the students involved, what was taking place in the classroom, what extenuating circumstances might be at play?
But none of these types of details were provided. Instead I was just left to choose the selection that, for the most part, I knew was supposed to be the “right” one, but I was dissatisfied with the options. The question that continues to bother me to this day was something like, “Is it more important for students to think that you respect them or to think that you like them?”
I’m pretty sure that the correct answer was, “You respect them,” but I can’t shake the feeling that it is critically important that students believe that their teacher likes them. I struggle to determine which is more important, like or respect.
I’ve written previously about learning being a brave act, and about how learning requires trust. I think being liked is an essential component to that trust. How is it possible for students to trust a teacher who they think doesn’t like them?
This was instilled in me from the very earliest days of my teaching career. During one of my observation conferences as a student teacher at The Germaine Lawrence School, a residential treatment center for adolescent girls, my advisor, Jeffrey Benson, asked a pointed question. “You don’t really like Kathy, do you?” Kathy was one of my students. She suffered from a severe eating disorder, and as part of this she was incredibly sneaky and required near constant monitoring and redirection. When sharpening a pencil, Kathy would take the longest route from her seat to the sharpener in order to try to get some prohibited exercise. I had to watch to ensure that she was actually sitting in her chair, rather than the squatting she was prone to do in order to burn calories. She even had to be supervised when using the restroom. She was required to sing for the entire time she was in a stall because otherwise she would drink the water from the toilet tank as a means of boosting her weight before her daily weigh-ins with the nurse.
Teaching Kathy was exhausting, and I frequently found myself feeling impatient with her. I thought that I was concealing this, but Jeffrey’s question clearly indicated that I was not. I responded honestly, “No, not really. I find her incredibly annoying.” Jeffrey gently replied, “I can tell. And if I can tell, so can your other students. If they sense that you don’t like her, it will make it that much harder for the other students in your class to like her. You need to try and find positive things about her. You need to learn to like her.”
It’s been 22 years since that conversation, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Students need to believe that their teacher likes them, to believe that they are cared about, and that they belong at school.
Rachel Kessler describes the importance of this caring in her book The Soul of Education, where she identifies and describes Seven Gateways that are critical for healthy adolescent development. One of these Gateways is The Yearning for Deep Connection. Kessler writes, “The yearning for deep connection describes a quality of relationship that is profoundly caring, is resonant with meaning, and involves feelings of belonging, or of being truly seen and known. Students may experience deep connection to themselves, to others, to nature, or to a higher power.”
To belong. To be truly seen and known. This is deep connection. And it is impossible to share a deep connection with someone you don’t like. This doesn’t mean you have to like everything someone does. Instead it means that you fundamentally like who they are, and that you have made the effort to get to know them, to build trust, and to risk being deeply connected.
Children and adolescents need to feel deeply connected in order to learn. This is true for academic learning for sure, but perhaps even more so, it is true for the learning that comes with social-emotional growth and development – the valorization that Maria Montessori described as being critical for adolescents to become contributing members of society.
Maslow placed the need for love and belonging as the most fundamental of the “psychological needs” he identified on his Hierarchy of Needs.
More modern research reiterates this finding for both long-term physical and psychological health. Brené Brown stated, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to.”
It is deep connection with students that allow teachers to access the powerful teachable moments that allows this valorization, this “functioning as we were meant to” to emerge. This was powerfully demonstrated in my classroom just a few weeks ago.
I could hear Camina loudly arguing with another teacher from down the hallway. She was insistent that this teacher had unfairly redirected her behavior. Conflict was not unusual for Camina; she was frequently enmeshed in social drama with her peers. These types of social struggles are very common among middle school students. Figuring out how to appropriately interact with others is an important component of adolescent development. Camina’s biggest issues weren’t the social conflicts in and of themselves. Far more concerning was her frequent inability to take responsibility for her behavior. This led to conflicts with teachers and staff. But more importantly, it prohibited her from learning from her mistakes, and as a result, she kept repeating the same behaviors. All of her teachers were frustrated with her.
This most recent issue occurred the day before winter break. Her behavior had to be addressed, but we all felt like we had talked with her until we were blue in the face, and assigning consequences always resulted in a bigger battle and simply served to widen the divide between us. None of us wanted to end the semester on such a negative note. But what to do?
I had taught Camina for two years. I had seen her good days and her bad ones. How could I help her to see the problem in her behavior and to take responsibility for it? How could I use the idea of deep connection to help her move forward?
As I thought about the dichotomy in her behaviors – her clear powerful need to please coupled with her resistance to redirection; her deep desire for positive social interactions paired with her frequent conflicts with peers; her enthusiasm and excitement to succeed that readily devolved into a refusal to try in the face of frustration – I was reminded of this story of two wolves.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
On a whim, I printed it out the next morning, and took it with me to my behavioral conference with Camina. We briefly talked about the conflict that led to the yelling in the hallway. Camina had taken a peer’s pen without permission, and when the peer, in Camina’s words, “snatched it back” from her, Camina began yelling and being disruptive in the classroom. Throughout our dialogue, there were a whole lot of comments that started with things that sounded like, “But she shouldn’t have … “ or “Yeah, I am gonna yell at someone when they just snatch something out of my hand!” True to form, Camina was struggling with being responsible for the problem she had created.
I handed her the story and asked her to read it. When she finished she looked up, and I asked, “What happened yesterday?”
“I fed the wrong wolf,” she replied softly.
I asked Camina if, as restitution for the problem she had caused the community, she would be willing to create a poster of the wolf story for display in our hallway. She readily agreed to do so, and when it was completed, she brought it to me and asked if she could present it to the group.
I didn’t expect to break through her resistance so easily. The story of the wolves depersonalized the situation, and that was helpful. However, I believe the most important factor was the relationship that I already had with Camina. She didn’t always agree with me or with my decisions. I’m sure she didn’t always like me. But she did trust me, and that, coupled with the non-confrontation of the story, allowed me to reach her on that day.
There are two wolves inside all of us. Our students are better able to feed the right wolf when we can see it in them, and when we show it to them. When they are truly seen and known.
Every year, as part of our second quarter wrap-up celebration, we give each child a “gift.” This isn’t a tangible gift, rather it is a reflection of who the child is as her best self. (You can find more details about the components of this celebration here.)
Camina’s “best-self statement” was especially moving for me this year. It wasn’t easy to write. I had to work to see only the “good wolf” components of her, but in doing so, I realized that the very same qualities that regularly get her into trouble — sticking up for the perceived underdog, holding fast to her convictions, and not being afraid to speak her mind – are things that with the strength of the good wolf behind them are tremendous attributes.
This is what I wrote:
Camina, you have an intensity of spirit that will ensure that you always have strong feelings and opinions about things. Don’t let anyone tell you this is a weakness. Channel this energy for good and you will become a powerful fighter for what is right and just. You don’t hesitate to speak up for yourself or others, and you are comfortable sharing your thoughts even if no one else agrees with them. As you grow and develop, this will serve as a strength that will help you to determine just what it is that you stand for. You will continue to use this skill to lead others, but remember to do so while taking others’ perspectives into account and maintaining the dignity of all parties involved. Harness your superpower and you will do amazing things. You are a gift.
As I read this best-self statement to her, she started to cry … and so did I. I hope that in that moment she felt truly seen and known, that she felt as if she belonged, and that she was deeply connected.
In order for our students to progress, they must have their “yearning for deep connection” fulfilled. School is an important place in which this occurs. Here are some strategies for helping to build deep connection into your classroom.
- Build structures that allow for more time spent with the same students.
- This is easier at the elementary level – although many elementary schools are now moving toward a subject-specific model which decreases time spent between teacher and students.
- At the secondary level (or at the elementary level if your schedule is such that students move between teachers for subject-area instruction), consider block schedules, teaming, or looping
- Many schools have developed an advisory model where for some portion of the week, a small group of students is tied to an advisor; this relationship typically continues for several years.
- Work to see the positive in every child, and help them to see it in themselves. There will always be students that you will find hard to like. It can be helpful to periodically check in with a colleague who has a different perspective on these students in order to help you shift your view.
- Enjoy your students – laugh with them, play with them, celebrate with them. Field trips, group initiatives/games, or classroom ceremonies can be particularly valuable for this.
- Get to know your students
- At the beginning of the year, get to know their names (and how to pronounce them) as quickly as possible.
- Early in the year (or at the start to second semester) a survey can help you get to know your students’ situations and interests
- Spend time talking to your students. This may sound simple, but there’s not a lot of downtime in a classroom, so doing this with intentionality matters.
- Provide assignments that allow students to share their experiences and interests
- Attend your students’ extra-curricular activities, or get involved in their community.
Take care to continue to seek out deep connection with your students. Find ways to like them — even, or perhaps especially, those students who are a real challenge to like. Nurture deep connections. It will enrich all of you.
 McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology. February 04, 2016. Accessed December 30, 2017. https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html.
 Seppala, Emma. “Connect To Thrive.” Psychology Today. August 26, 2012. Accessed December 30, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201208/connect-thrive.