Student Teaching Experience
I completed my student teaching in San Antonio, Texas in 1996. I had the immense fortune of having Jane Zarate and Margaret Reynolds as my supervising teachers in my first placement in a fifth grade classroom. Jane and Margaret were pioneers – they transformed their traditional separate classrooms into one, joint classroom, where 50 fifth graders got the best of two teachers who loved their job, and loved their students. It was from Jane and Margaret that I learned about SEL, Social Emotional Learning, though we weren’t calling it SEL in those days.
Jane and Margaret had established a weekly class meeting that they lovingly called “The Starlight Express,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. It played out like this: every Friday morning, all 50 fifth graders would gather in the 2nd classroom (the one not used for instruction after the two teachers had joined their classrooms). They would share successes and challenges from the week, then sing along to the song, “Starlight Express,” that includes lyrics like:
I have never been
Bring me home safely before I wake up
‘Cause I believe in you completely
Though you may be unseen”
The Starlight Express
When I had my own classroom, back in Iowa, I carried the weekly Starlight Express routine with me. I mimicked what I had learned from Jane and Margaret, while adding my own spin to the routine. I still have the pair of star earrings, a gift from Jane and Margaret, that I wore every Friday to signal that it was our class meeting day. This routine was faithfully carried out for several years with many classes of 4th and 5th graders. Eventually, the weekly Starlight Express routine/meeting changed from me choosing the song (and lyrics) to the students choosing the song (and rewriting the lyrics to match our class). As much as I loved the Starlight Express, the entire routine took on more meaning when the students had ownership of it. There was a year when one class chose “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne! Despite Ozzy’s fiendish persona, that song served to bring our class together.
Those weekly meetings were great, and I believe they had a positive impact on the emotional health of each of those students, not to mention increasing their academic achievements. If I had my own classroom right now, I can’t say whether or not I’d re-establish weekly class meetings. Without a doubt, the one practice I know that I’d continue is the practice of getting to know my students and their families, listening to my students, and enjoying my students. Danny Steele expressed the heart of this practice in a recent tweet:
This ability to connect with students did not come to me naturally. At the beginning of my career, I believed those weekly class meetings were enough. That’s not to say that I didn’t connect with my students outside of the meetings, but I wasn’t intentional about it. I didn’t know how to truly enjoy my students and their diverse personalities and talents. That was a skill, which I believe is absolutely essential to working with all people, that I acquired over time, and with much influence from others.
Relationships as Part of Instructional Coaching
In my instructional coaching work, it is abundantly clear that the importance of connection with adults is equally as essential as the importance of connection with students. Building connection with colleagues involves listening to them, acknowledging them, letting them know that you care about them. Perhaps the best way to let someone know you care is by simply listening to them. As I said to a colleague just the other day, “I wonder if a basic premise of SEL is the desire to be heard.” That’s actually more than a wondering: I’m 100% sure that what people want is to be heard/understood/listened to. And this doesn’t take a lot of time. It goes back to what Danny Steele said: “It doesn’t take much…” but it makes all the difference in the world.
I wrapped up a coaching cycle on Friday with first year kindergarten teacher, Chelsea Page. It was bittersweet to wrap that one up. I have so enjoyed working with Chelsea and her students. Chelsea is a natural when it comes to making connections with her students – it was abundantly clear, each time I was in her classroom, that she truly enjoys her students. Chelsea was an absolute joy to work with! She was willing to try anything, she was perpetually engaged in self-reflection, and even though she experiences lots of self-doubt, she is committed to doing what is best for her students.
Chelsea and I wrapped up our coaching cycle with an exit interview where we both answered questions about how the coaching cycle went. We both reflected on areas of success, and missed opportunities. The one missed opportunity I did not capitalize on as the coach was encouraging Chelsea to always, always prioritize connections with students above all else. Our coaching cycle was focused on a standards-based goal (as it should have been). Our goal was to show growth on students’ proficiency toward a set of standards. This is important and worthwhile work. It goes hand in hand with building and maintaining relationships with students. A focus on relationships/connections is equally as important as a focus on academics. It’s not an “either/or” proposition; it’s a “both/and” proposition.
Connections AND Curriculum – Both/And, NOT Either/Or
Dr. Jody Carrington, an amazing human being who has a great deal of influence on my daily interactions, says the following in Because of a Teacher, written and curated by the one and only George Couros: “Relationships know no hierarchy, but they know kindness and connection – especially when things are hard. In tough times, you can’t tell kids how to manage big emotions; you have to show them. That’s where the magic happens. The rest – the integration of literacy and numeracy – will follow accordingly.”
This is not to say that curriculum doesn’t matter; curriculum absolutely matters. And there are people fighting to ensure that we have solid curriculums in place so that all students are receiving the best in literacy instruction. I was reminded of this as a participant in an amazing webinar hosted by the fine folks from Curriculum Matters. I said it earlier, and it bears repeating: Relationships/connections and quality curriculum are not an either/or proposition. They are a both/and proposition. The point is, all of the high quality curriculum in the world won’t make a damn bit of difference if we haven’t first connected with our students, with our colleagues, with the humans we get to be with every day.