Relationships Matter: Transformation Through Wayside Teaching

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