Question: "I let my students know that I am interested in what they do outside my classroom. Consequently, they often invite me to their non-school-related activities like community-league ball games or community theater productions. How do I respectfully decline their invitations without damaging the relationship?"
I still don't think the pitch was a strike, but after 35 years, I guess I should let it go. Going back to the dugout, I noticed a familiar face in the crowd at my summer league baseball game. Mr. D. was there watching the game. I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, he said he was going to watch one of my games during the summer. Mr. D. was one of those teachers who made learning come alive. He made you want to come to school and he always showed a genuine interest in who you were, both in and out of his classroom.
After I graduated from college I worked with Mr. D. and often shared with him how great it was that he showed interest in what we did outside school. One day we both were invited to see a student perform at a concert. I replied immediately that I couldn't go. Mr. D. told the student that he would check his schedule to see if he could go, but that he was very busy. Either way, he would get back with the student. My words shot through the young student—not offering any reason, just a plain, "I can't go." Mr. D. was kind and considerate.
After the student left, Mr. D. took me aside and said, "Tommy, it is a compliment when a student asks you to come to something." He went on, "I get asked to see students outside of school all of the time. Clearly, I can't get everywhere. Sometimes I don't want to go. But I always thank them and if I can, I will go."
Those words have stayed with me for many years. Supporting students outside the school is one of many ways you can better understand the student. But whether you go or don't go, it's critical that you respond to the request respectfully. And if you are unable to attend, following up with the student after the activity is of equal importance. It's as simple as, "How did it go last night?"; "I'm sorry that I couldn't go"; or "What was your favorite part of …?"
I have spent countless hours at functions outside of the school day supporting students. Do I regret any of the time? No. Not surprisingly, at many of the activities I was the only adult supporting that student. For those events I could not attend, I explained that I had family plans, or was out of town, studying for classes, etc. Regardless of my reason for not attending, I told them up front I would not be there, thanked them for asking, and followed up afterward to see how it went. After all, as Maya Angelou said "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."
Tom Burton is director of administrative services for Cuyahoga Heights Schools in Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2014.