Relationships Matter: Transformation Through Wayside Teaching

By: Sara Davis Powell


There's no getting around it—we teach who we are. By our presence in a classroom, it is inevitable that students learn about us. We teach who we are, so who we are matters.

Who we are becomes evident through our relationships with students. Wayside teaching—making the most of sometimes seemingly inconsequential connections with kids—is one way of optimizing our influence as teachers.

Wayside teaching is all about relationships. It is not an add-on, not a program, not fluff, and—very important for teachers, students, and schools—wayside teaching is not anti-accountability. On the contrary, wayside teaching enhances academic learning by providing a sense of belonging and safety that helps free learners to participate more fully in their own education.

We can affect young adolescents in many ways through wayside teaching. Here are some practices to consider.

1. Practice Little Gestures That Matter

  • Stand outside your doorway between classes. This not only makes a difference in terms of orderly transitions, but also provides excellent opportunities to practice wayside teaching. A cheerful "Hi, how was your visit to your grandma's house this weekend?" or "Boy, that was some game yesterday!" personalizes relationships with kids. We have to want to know our students; we have to do it on purpose.
  • Be 100% present in your classroom. Young adolescents know if you aren't.

2. Reveal Your Personal Self

  • Tell stories from your past and present. Young adolescents often perceive it their duty to say, "Oh, no. Not another lame story," when the fact is, the few minutes we spend relating a personal experience to the context of a lesson is a true delight for them. The better they know us, the more they will reveal to us. As we share our own dreams with young adolescents, we may inspire them to dream as well.
  • Show young adolescents that even people in positions of authority and responsibility have dilemmas and problems. They will be much more likely to open up to us when they sense we understand that life can be difficult and that we have questions too.
  • Share your life. Traci Peters, a math teacher at Cario Middle School in South Carolina, has a Mrs. Peters Board where she displays her own seventh grade school picture and report card, family pictures of her childhood, and current family photos of her husband and son. Students who gather around the board can identify with Mrs. Peters. How cool is that?

3. Create and Maintain an Inviting Classroom

  • Make the classroom attractive and interesting. Occasionally play music and have interactive games. Give students reasons to want to come in.
  • Stock up on supplies. Young adolescents are going through the changes of puberty. Making mirrors and simple toiletries such as deodorant or sanitary supplies for girls available can save students from a potentially embarrassing situation. This is wayside teaching at its finest.

4. Promote a Culture of Acceptance and Compassion

  • Accept students for who they are and not for what they do. This will foster their self-acceptance and their acceptance of others.
  • Create a bond. Try this yarn-toss activity: Have everyone stand in a circle. Toss a ball of yarn to someone while holding the end strand. Say his or her name and reveal something you admire about the person. That person grabs the loose strand while tossing the yarn ball to another student. Continue to do this until the ball has been tossed to each student. Make sure everyone has the ball tossed to him or her at least once.
  • When it's time to stop, have the group pause for one minute, look at the web of yarn, and think about what they have experienced. Then have them write their thoughts anonymously on index cards. Collect the cards and read them to the class. Most students will sense a stronger community bond as a result of the activity.

5. Help Students Find Their Voices

  • Give students choices whenever it's feasible.
  • Give students opportunities to talk. Here's an idea: Have students discuss a topic in small informal groups for 15 minutes to help generate ideas and allow even very shy kids to talk. When you convene the whole class for discussion, give each student two chips. Everyone must speak twice, and only twice, each time surrendering a chip. Doing this often builds student voice capacity.
  • Give meaningful writing assignments to help young adolescents find their voices. Consider a variety of formats, including poetry, short stories, editorials, and letters that call for action on topics meaningful to kids.

6. Learn to Listen

Open your ears. Young adolescents are anxious to tell us their stories. They generally don't want advice, just an open ear and focused attention. Have real conversations with students that involve listening as well as speaking. No, this can't happen every day with every student, but it should happen as often as possible.

7. Speak Carefully

  • Be role models of civility. Young adolescents are easily offended, even if being offensive may seem to be their specialty. We must be role models of civility, and our speech is the most obvious way to express this. Middle grades kids listen to us while sometimes blatantly perfecting the skill of pretending not to.
  • Be positive. Young adolescents are searching for their identities, and often this search can lead to not-so-positive behaviors. But when we know our students well, we can often compliment them for progress or indications of growth, however small.
  • Bite your tongue. Sarcasm is particularly hurtful for young adolescents whose egos are fragile and whose memories are long.

8. Help Students Become Autonomous, Not Anonymous

  • Remember that alone is not synonymous with autonomous. Autonomy implies self-reliance by choice. Giving students opportunities to know themselves, to explore their own attitudes, motivations, talents, and needs will promote autonomy. For 10- to 15-year-olds, autonomy is positive; alone is just lonely.
  • Find the anonymous kids. Anonymity is a way some young adolescents attempt to solve their problem. If they can simply stay below the radar, they are happy—well, not happy, but at least not in a possibly embarrassing or uncomfortable spotlight. Find those kids. Then go to work finding their strengths and devising ways for them to grow and become independent learners on their way to cognitive, emotional, and social autonomy.

Make Wayside Teaching Habitual

Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Making wayside teaching a habit frees us to be even more responsive to our students and their circumstances.

Reforms come and reforms go. Nothing will transform a middle school like purposeful, positive wayside teaching. Awareness is usually all it takes for a wayside teacher to correct an attitude, alter an approach, or initiate or eliminate an action.

John Lounsbury, the extraordinary educator who first coined the phrase wayside teaching, wrote in As I See It (NMSA 1988) about his gardening hobby and his delight at seeing plants take on new life with fresh leaves and buds as a result of being broken free from a pot-bound state and then repotted in nutrient-rich soil.

Applying this analogy to people, he wrote, "Perhaps what is needed for growth and improvement so earnestly sought on every hand is to repot people, to give adequate encouragement to that inherent potential that does exist in all persons, to feed and free those hungry roots from the restrictive psychological pots that bind them."

Through wayside teaching we can repot our students over and over, freeing them to not only grow, but to flourish in learning and in life.

While acknowledging the power of one wayside teacher to positively affect students and their learning, I am reminded of the adage "An individual can make a difference. A team can make a miracle." What would happen if your whole team purposefully implemented wayside teaching? How about your whole grade level? Your whole school? I wonder. . . .

Originally published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2011


Sara Davis Powell is a professor and chair of education at Belmont Abbey College. E-mail: sarapowell@bac.edu

 
20 Comments
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20 comments on article "Relationships Matter: Transformation Through Wayside Teaching"

Thank you so much for your thoughtful post. I truly believe that one of the most important parts of teaching, if not the most important, is that a teacher cares deeply for the individual rather than just the intellectual. Teachers have an incredible opportunity to make a beautiful impact on students and you sum up very well what that looks like in the classroom with the concept of wayside teaching. As you discuss, this teaching is not additional content but will affect the learning that takes place when students know that the classroom becomes a safe and inviting home.

—Rebekah
11/9/2014 11:22 PM

What I most appreciated about your post is the analogy you provided from John Lounsbury on how "growth and improvement so earnestly sought on every hand is to repot people, to give adequate encouragement to that inherent potential that does exist in all persons, to feed and free those hungry roots from the restrictive psychological pots that bind them." It is true that wayside teaching is the way to 'repot' these students, and by providing them with personal little gestures, background of who their teacher is as a person, having an inviting classroom, and all the other points students will be able to create a long term connection that is essential for getting them involved in their classrooms and learning. I agree that positive mentor relationships can transform students and 'repot' them to help create the best environment for them to prosper and grow.

—Helene
11/10/2014 5:58 PM

Miss Powell,

This article provoked a variety of emotions in me. Firstly, it made me genuinely excited about teaching. It made me nostalgic towards the teachers who practiced these habits and ways of teaching when I was their student, and made me look forward to implementing these practices in my future classroom. However, I can’t help but take a step back and ask “Who wouldn’t do this in their classroom?” It mind-boggles me to consider educators who have a closed-mind/closed-door approach, and leave their teaching to the standards and curriculum without revealing any bit of who they are or what they’re about. How are children able to relate to, trust, or learn from an impersonal, blank face? Connections and relationships feel vital and of utmost importance to me as a pre-service educator. It’s concerning that this could be viewed as such a “big” idea or a new way of thinking. This approach seems obviously crucial to the success of students opening their minds, feeling comfortable, human, and taking risks. Risks are essential to having courage, new ideas, and breaking through old limitations (learning).

The truth of the matter is that some approaches are impersonal, and strictly subject-centered/focused. Some educators treat their job as nothing more than simply a job. Good teachers, great teachers, know the importance of wayside teaching, and it warms my heart to know others out there care enough to write about it and comment on it. Compassion, civility, and humanity aren’t necessarily on our curriculum—but they’re of monumental importance and it’s our job to implement them into the curriculum. Thank you for exposing this importance!

—Dara
3/30/2015 3:05 PM

Thank you very much for this fantastic article. I enjoyed when you said that wayside teaching enhances academic learning by "providing a sense of belonging and safety that helps free learners to participate more fully in their own education." The nine practices listed are very practical and efficient. When looking through the practices and thinking about my future in teaching, I was personally challenged by three of them.

The first is practicing the little gestures that matter and being 100% present in the classroom. I remember the teachers that were not "all the way" present in class and I was not as intrigued in class. I know this will be challenging, but very rewarding if I show my students I am only concerned about their success and not my own. The second practice that stood out was promote a culture of acceptance and compassion and doing this by accepting students for who they are and not for what they do. As a future math teacher, I will be grading and observing loads of work by students, but in order to have an accepting culture, I must accept the kids as who they are and not accept them based upon how hard they are working in my class. The third practice that was challenging was speaking carefully by not resorting to sarcasm. I have learned the hard way getting the laugh of many at the expense of one person is never acceptable, especially in a classroom setting where students are developing their self-esteem.

—Logan
4/18/2015 2:33 PM

I greatly enjoyed reading this article about wayside teaching. Just as you state above, providing a sense of belonging and safety to students is just as important as teaching academic material. As a future educator, I hope that I will provide my students with a warmth and kindness that will allow them to feel comfortable in my classroom. Your point to "accept students for who they are and not for what they do" resonates with me. All too often, students only receive praise for the outstanding papers that they write or for the good test grades that they get. This makes students feel as if their only praise-worthy traits revolve around school, and this also discourages students who do not receive good grades. As teachers, one of our primary goals should be to accept students for their unique personalities, not for their academic performance alone. I hope that I will remember this throughout my future years as an educator so that I can develop into the type of wayside teacher that you describe in this article!

- Lindsey

—Lindsey
8/30/2017 7:20 AM

Hi, Lindsey!

After reading your response I have absolutely no doubt that you will make a difference in the lives of young adolescents by seeing them as whole people and addressing their development from that perspective. Thanks so much for choosing middle level education!

Dr. Sara Davis Powell

—Sara
8/30/2017 11:30 AM

I really loved reading this article. I think it is very important to give your students a voice in the classroom and boost their confidence. Making the classroom a welcoming environment can be crucial in making the students more comfortable in class! Thank you so much for sharing this knowledge and as a middle level education major I love to read articles like yours that teach important points in the classroom that can help me in the future.

- Annie

—Aniela
8/30/2017 8:42 PM

Thanks so much, Annie, for your comments! Giving students a voice is indeed important. Let's always listen to them and let them know we care!

Dr. Sara Davis Powell

—Sara
8/30/2017 10:36 PM

I really enjoyed reading your article. I especially liked how you made a call for every middle school teacher to internationalize wayside teaching. We all have certain teachers that impacted us and made us want to be educators. Those teachers mainly impacted us because they were intentional about wayside teaching. I, just like you, wonder how different the middle school experience would be if every teacher was intentional about going to the extra-curricular activities their students were in or made it a point to connect with students on a non-academic level. I hope that I will not forget the importance of wayside teaching when I get into the classroom.

—Amber
8/30/2017 9:38 PM

I'm so glad you picked up on the importance of being intentional, Amber. Too many teachers seem to just go through the motions and miss out on opportunities to have an impact. Also, without intentional wayside teaching, we teachers miss out on so much of the enjoyment involved in interacting with young adolescents! Best wishes to you!

Dr. Sara Davis Powell

—Sara
8/30/2017 10:41 PM

I truly loved reading this article. You gave so many helpful suggestions that I may just jot down to remember as a future teacher. Forming relationships and being open with students is so important because they feel like they too can open up and be themselves. Being welcoming and positive is crucial to gaining the trust and respect of your students. I love all of your tips to help students find themselves without letting any of them go unnoticed (the shy ones). You inspired me, and I thank you for that.

—Sarah
8/30/2017 10:14 PM

You got it, Sarah! Relationships make all the difference to our students. Every day in the classroom is an adventure as we get to know the wonderful kids in the middle!

Thanks for responding to the article!

Dr. Sara Davis Powell

—Sara
8/30/2017 10:45 PM

I completely agree with this article's points. There are so many example of Wayside teaching from my time during middle school and I remember feeling a sense of belonging when a teacher commented on my shirt or asked me how my day was when I walked into their classroom. I went to a NEA conference last spring and a speaker shared a story related to Wayside teaching that stuck out to me. One day when the speaker had forgotten his pencil and was searching frantically for it, his teacher went over and placed his spare pencil onto his desk, and continued on with his lesson without skipping a beat. This small act of kindness meant a lot to the speaker and helped build his respect for his teacher. I want to create a nurturing environment for my students as well and I do not want them to feel panicky or anxious when they walk into my classroom. I also enjoyed your point about creating a warm, inviting personality and classroom. I have an autographed Levar Burton photo in my room that I plan for to keep in my classroom because Reading Rainbow had a huge impact on my love of learning and teaching. I hope it will prove a great talking point for students who remember watching the show growing up and we establish stronger relationships through a common interest. One thing that is constantly brought up about teaching middle school and something I need to work on is sarcasm. I am a very sarcastic person and it will be a hard habit to break when I enter the classroom. Thank you for sharing these tips. I am sure they will be helpful in the future.

-Joseph

—Joseph
8/30/2017 10:24 PM

Reading Rainbow! That certainly brings back memories. My own sons used to watch it.

When I taught on an 8th grade team years ago, we established what we called the "sarcasm patrol." Every time we let ourselves be sarcastic, we put a dollar in a jar in the workroom. When we first started, we had plenty on Fridays for each of us to have a glass of wine! As time went on, we became so aware of our tendencies to be sarcastic, that the jar would be empty for weeks. Silly idea, but it worked for us.

Our students learn US! Even when we have no idea of our influence, we do and say things that are remembered. What a responsibility!

Thanks, Joseph, for your honesty. You're on your way to being a terrific teacher.

Dr. Sara Davis Powell

—Sara
8/30/2017 10:54 PM

Dr. Powell,

Thank you so much for this informative and relate-able article. It really resonated with me when you discussed the importance of letting our personalities come through in the classroom. This not only shows students the difference in people but that being yourself is an important aspect along with academics. The best educators I know let their personalities guide their teaching. Through their voice they have helped me find my voice. This method of wayside teaching gives students a sense of security, trust, and connection. I will consider this article as I continue my path in education. Thank you again for the insight and further understanding.

—Elizabeth
8/30/2017 10:31 PM

I'm so thankful, Elizabeth, that we will never have a personality box that all of us are supposed to squeeze into to deserve the label "effective teacher." How boring that would be! We teach best when we are examples of content, adjusted adults who enjoy life. What a wonderful profession!

Dr. Sara Davis Powell

—Sara
8/30/2017 10:59 PM

I really liked reading this article and learning so much about Wayside Teaching. Before reading this article I had never heard of this concept. After reading this article I can see how important it is to share those relationships with your students as they grow in your classroom. I liked how you included the list of ideas for the educators. This provided a good resource when trying to connect with your students on a more personal level!

-Lauren

—Lauren
8/31/2017 12:00 AM

Connecting on a personal level is so important, Lauren. Young adolescents want to know us, even though some are very good at hiding it. When we recognize them as whole people with loads of potential, they respond to us with respect. And, even in those moments when their outward attitude doesn't seem respectful, they know who cares and wants what's best for them. I'm happy to have introduced wayside teaching to you!

Dr. Sara Davis Powell

—Sara
8/31/2017 4:37 PM

Hello Sara, thank you for your insightful post. As an upcoming new teacher it is nice to have access to information from more experienced educators and these 8 guidelines are most helpful; I hope to use these within my classroom in the future.

-Brandon

—Brandon
2/3/2018 2:50 PM

Dr. Powell,

This article was such an insightful read. To see action put into words helps to articulate what I’m seeing in the classroom. I never took into account just how impressionable adolescents can be by the adult standing in front of them. Every moment no matter how small has lasting impact that I will have to take into account every time speak, move or even gesture. Not only does it feel like a validation but also a guideline to go by as my future goals process to be a certified teacher.

Eaven

—Eaven
2/5/2018 11:56 AM

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