There is that story that teachers tell about seeing a student outside the context of the school building, the student completely flummoxed by the teacher being in, say, the grocery store or at the gas station. “I’d thought you lived at the school,” the student’s reaction seemed to say, a vision of a cot in the classroom, a hot plate for soup and boiling eggs, a TV hidden in the closet so that that beloved but mysterious teacher could watch the news while boiling those eggs. (For 12 years I taught in and lived at two boarding schools, overseeing dormitories of mostly sophomore and junior boys. When I was on duty in the dorms, the door to our apartment was open, and students came and went. Students in those settings – about 0.5% of school-aged young people – have a very different reality, as do teachers.)
Recently, I had some back and forth with friends about teachers at the opposite ends of the pole: One teacher who has a hard shell, allowing little of his private life to infiltrate his teaching, another who has an easy manner with her students and uses past life experiences – her own – to explain and build on what’s happening in the classroom. I have known many teachers at these ends of the spectrum – and many in between – and their places on this spectrum do not predetermine effectiveness. In the past I have written about my high school physics teacher Mr. Jacobs and his significant effectiveness in the classroom; he was also a teacher that I knew nothing about outside of school. A complete cipher, but I loved him and his class, and I learned a ton about physics.
As the parent of a middle schooler, I wonder if a hard shell is the best way to get to middle school students. They desperately want connectedness these middle grades years, with their peers and their teachers, and a hard shelled teacher does not seem the best way to get there.
But I’m being too narrow in my thinking. Research about the student-teacher relationship and its impact on learning is just that – about the relationship. Sure, there are effective strategies to help develop that relationship, but they can be as varied as the teachers that implement them – teachers that range from the hard shelled to the open and easy-going. The key for all teachers, I guess, is a belief in the importance of that positive relationship, for when “students have a positive teacher-student relationship, they adjust to school more easily, view school as a positive experience, exhibit fewer behavior difficulties, display better social skills, and demonstrate higher academic achievement.” (See this paper here or this one here.) Powerful consequences, huh?
It’s all rooted in respect, right? That when students respect their teacher and feel respected by that teacher, that relationship can be very, very solid. I didn’t need to know about Mr. Jacobs’ life outside of school – about the boiled eggs that he had for dinner each evening, his cot and hot plate hidden in the classroom’s closet, ready to be set up when we left the building. I just needed to know that he respected my nascent physics mind, which he did. That’s hard for me to believe, given what a dope I was in high school, but it makes me admire him even more. He got through to us by being respectful, by engendering respect in him, and by sharing his deep respect – his love – for the material. Funny to think how much I remember that class and him, almost 40 years after.