The Importance of Connection

My first day in a contracted teaching position should have been easy. I had graduated in the top of my class with a 3.97 GPA, passed all of the certification exams in my state, and had been hired to teach in the building where I had just completed fifteen weeks of student teaching under a wonderful teacher. He was comfortable in his role, which he had occupied for more than twenty-five years. He knew everything and never had to refer to any notes. He did not follow a traditional lesson plan format, but somehow it worked. It always worked. I could never tell the line of demarcation between active learning and closure, but somehow it always worked; students always learned. The discussions were robust and the student responses were evidence that they “got it.”

I watched in awe as he moved the conversations forward. He was a very distinguished gentleman with a PhD, working in a large urban public school with a very diverse population. Somehow he had commanded the respect and admiration of all the students. I watched as he allowed students to express their opinions and take risks without fear. I watched as he fostered a culture that was inclusive and democratic. What seemed like casual discussions always ended with a history lesson. I took lots of notes, but I still couldn’t really put my finger on the chemistry that existed between the students and the teacher.

I had started my student teaching experience in September, and then a series of amazing opportunities and doors opened up for my cooperation teacher. Suddenly, he was out of the class, and there was a job waiting for me. I knew the routine, was working with a collaborative staff, and I was taking over as the teacher with a group of students I had worked with all year. Changing my title from “student teacher” to “teacher” should have been easy.

But it was not easy. In fact, I was unexpectedly panic-stricken, paralyzed in fear at the beginning of a new journey. No longer an apprentice under the tutelage of a master teacher, I was totally responsible for the teaching and learning. If things went wrong, it would be all my fault.

Secretly, I knew I was not up to the challenge. I was a history teacher: what if I forgot something as simple as the date of the attack at Pearl Harbor? December 7, 1941, December 7, 1941 … I rehearsed this date and many others, repeatedly going over them in my head, but still I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready. Mentally I replayed a variety of scenarios in which a student asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer. Even worse, what if a student was smarter than me? After all, this was high school, and I was not much older than the students in my class. I was not up to it; I could not do it; I was not prepared.

With the benefit of more experience and some hindsight, I can see that maybe no one is ever fully prepared for that first day alone in the classroom. Certainly, that’s the case for many if not all of the teachers whose stories are included in this collection.

On that first day, I made so many mistakes. We had a fire drill, and the bell schedule was altered. I had planned for a forty-two minute lesson, but all the times were shifted. I was nervous and afraid. I was not sure what to do and could not find my center, I fumbled in front of classes for the entire day and had more questions than answers. A part of me wanted to pretend I was sick and just go home but I stayed. And I survived. I was honest with my students and shared some of my concerns and—believe it or not—they helped me. I maintained control, but I asked them questions, and we helped each other. On that day I realized that no teacher preparation program can ever fully prepare you for what is to come. It is an ongoing process.

I read history books and committed to memory the lesson plan format. I anticipated questions that I would be asked so that I could always have an answer. In order to be a good teacher, I had to be a great student. I continued to read and learn and became more comfortable in my role as a teacher, and over the years it got easier.

But finding that delicate balance between teaching academics and addressing all of the intangibles took many years. For the first few years of my career I was never fully satisfied or fulfilled. I loved teaching, but I didn’t feel like teaching loved me back. Something was missing, I needed more. I started to think about my experiences as a student and all the things I remembered, and I realized that although I could not remember many specific lessons, I remembered dozens of personal interactions and how they made me feel. It was then that I realized in order to teach my students, I had to know my students. It did not matter how much I knew; if I could not connect with them, I could not teach them. They might not remember what I said, but they would always remember how I made them feel.

Things started to make sense in my fifth year of teaching, when I had a group of students who seemed unusually distracted and unmotivated. I could not figure out why, but after a series of conversations I realized that seven students in this one class had lost a parent to cancer, and their families were still dealing with the effects. We decided, as a group, to get involved with the American Cancer Society. These students became more active and engaged in class, and I realized that there was a direct relationship to the work we were doing in the community. The lightbulb came on. Students will not learn from someone they have no connection to.

It was around this time that I began to further develop my personal philosophy of education. As part of my graduate work I became increasingly interested in the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. My philosophy is rooted in the ideas of Dr. King, who, in 1947, wrote an essay for the Morehouse College student paper, in which he described the purpose of education. He writes that most students are confused about the role education should play in their lives and society. Dr. King eloquently sums up the essay with this conclusion: the purpose of education is twofold, to build knowledge and character. I realized that by focusing on only the academic side, I was not providing students with a complete education and therefore not experiencing the chemistry I had longed for so many years ago. The connections we make with students are as important as the content we teach.

Thirteen years later, as I write the introduction for this critical collection of stories in teacher voice, I am reminded of how important it is to connect with students by learning about their stories and including them as participants in their education. In May 2016, I was named the National Teacher of the Year, and I believe that what separates me from more than 3.5 million other amazing teachers in America is the fact that I have fostered strong relationships with my students and their community, which I have used to build capacity and give them a heightened sense of worth. I have learned that my job is to teach much more than academic content.

Most of us have vivid memories of a teacher or educator who was a major influence. I too have those memories. At every stage in my life, I can remember a teacher who had a significant impact on me. There was Mrs. McKinney, my 3rd grade teacher, who baked me a chocolate chip cake for my birthday. And Mrs. Turner, a high school guidance counselor who came to my house to inquire why I had been absent so many days from school. There was Dr. Burt Saxon, my amazing mentor and college professor, who taught me the value of making personal connections with my students before any real learning could occur. I can think of a dozen other teachers just like them, and my memory always includes the way I felt during and after the interaction.

I also remember vividly—down to the blue floral dress and the earrings she was wearing—the teacher who said no one in my family cared about me because they hadn’t attended parents’ night. You see, we used to put all of our work in a folder for our parents to see on parent’s night. The folders were left on the desk and our parents were supposed to take them home. My grandmother didn’t drive and there were no late busses in my neighborhood, and my folder was always left on my desk the next morning. I always tried to be the first one in the class so I could remove the folder before anyone noticed. I remember overhearing my teacher tell another teacher in the hallway that “their parents don’t care and no one ever comes to inquire about those students.” I knew exactly what she meant. In spite of everything that has happened in my life and all of the amazing interactions I have had with teachers, I still remember the razor sharpness of that comment and how it made me feel.

While my role as an educator includes ensuring that students learn the required academic content, I also want them to feel valued, respected, and free to take risks in my class. Fostering a collaborative culture and building relationships is one of the often overlooked lessons in schools. I want every one of my students to have felt included and represented in the conversation and to remember how they felt in my class. As educators, we must work together to find ways to empower our students intellectually, socially, and emotionally. We should use our students’ cultural experiences as a way to impart knowledge and skills and begin to change attitudes, and not as reminders of the obstacles that monopolize their daily lives. Our country has so many different communities—urban, suburban, rural, regional, and even Native American reservations. Our schools have to address the needs of all these communities. We must explore creative and inclusive ways of reaching students. Every child is entitled to an educational experience that is rich and robust and reflective of their personal journey.

The collection of personal stories in this book illustrates the many ways that teachers show students they care about their academic success and their personal growth. These teachers have engaged families and communities to work together to ensure that students succeed. They have taken the time to learn the stories of their students and understand their journeys and are now sharing those stories here today.