The R of Relationships in the Middle Grades

By: Dru Tomlin


Time to bask in the warm, effervescent glow of another R word as it pertains to middle level education! Here it is: Relationship. It is almost impossible to think about middle level education and not simultaneously think about the power of relationships. More learning happens when we spend time cultivating relationships. As the familiar saying goes (and it rings especially true in the middle grades), “Students care to learn when they learn that we care.” That means that we need to question how we get to know our students. And this means more than digging into files in vaults or the LMS to gather numerical data, attendance reports and disciplinary histories. It means developing a relationship with the world of your incoming students. What environment, what media, what stimuli, what influences and influencers, what learning are they experiencing beyond your classroom walls? This doesn’t mean you have to embrace your students’ world—just shake hands with it and develop a friendly relationship. When you do this, you may find that you judge students less for their fashion sense, their sense of humor, and their somewhat senselessness. You may even find that you can relate to them—because you were once a young adolescent, too! And when students get a whiff that you genuinely understand where they’re coming from and you care about where they’re going, they’re going to be more apt to learn from and with you.

In addition, more achieving happens when we spend time maintaining relationships.

The word “maintaining” means that relationships need to be worked on all the time—not just at the beginning of the year, during the first two weeks of school, or after students complete interest inventories. It means we ask our kids caring, interested questions and listening in a caring way (without judgment). It means we stop checking attendance and shuffling papers and look our students in the eye when we talk to them (without scowling). It means going to events in and out of school on occasion to see what they’re up to (without checking our cell phones). It means standing in the doorway, going out in the hallway, walking around the cafeteria, etc. to see where else students are learning and greeting them warmly and genuinely (without rushing).

Be. There. Every. Day. When you can understand, value and relate to your students’ worlds, you will be more insightful, more ready, and more able to make learning relevant for them. Connecting your content area standards and ideas to your students’ worlds makes more learning happen. Believe it or not, there are commonalities between “Rocky IV” and “The Call of the Wild.” There are similar thematic threads in the life of a paramecium and the life of a young adolescent. There are universalities that can be found in “Star Wars” and “Don Quixote.” You just have to put on those intellectual gloves and start digging with your students. Uncovering and discovering those relationships and points of relevance isn’t something we can do by searching Google or flipping through teachers’ manuals. It takes time, practice and yes, “deep thoughts” to see those relationships between your students’ worlds and your content area, but when you find them and illuminate them for your students, everyone’s light bulbs will turn brightly on—and more achieving will happen.

Finally, more types of relationships blossom when we spend time on relationships. Perhaps the most important product of this work, the most vital relationship of all, is the relationship we (students and teachers) learn to build with ourselves. Our students are constantly standing in shifting sands of their own identity. Even our most assured-looking students aren’t sure who they are on a daily basis; in fact, they aren’t even sure if anyone cares who they are anyways! But when someone shows an interest in who they are and who they can be, when someone takes time to relate to what they love and they loathe, when someone is there just because, our students begin to see themselves as valued and worthwhile and worth working on.

When I was in seventh grade, my ELA teacher assigned challenging work, including memorizing and reciting poems in front of the class. Ms. Meekins would push me to love poetry through a careful balance of perspiration and inspiration. But I did the large quantities of her ELA work because she did something wonderfully small. In addition to being an odd, fashion-challenged tuba-playing 12-year-old, I was also a doodler. I would draw in the margins of my homework when I turned it in to Ms. Meekins. Little doodles of stick figures climbing on the holes in the paper, throwing ropes and rappelling down the pink lines, etc. And when I would get my papers back, Ms. Meekins doodled back. She took the time to create a little reciprocal dialogue with me through art. When she did that, I saw her in a new way. I saw ELA in a new way. And perhaps most importantly, I saw myself in a new way. When Ms. Meekins developed that arts-based relationship with me, I saw that maybe I was worth spending time on.

So how do you develop relationships with your students every day, so they will develop relationships with themselves—beyond your classroom walls?


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