When I went back to school to get my teaching credential, I was overwhelmed by the techniques, theories, and strategies one needed to learn in order to teach effectively. We learned how to help children who had special learning needs, plan a lesson that covered our state standards, make content accessible for English language learners, use technology to enhance learning, and everything else in between. What they didn’t teach us, however, is how to connect with our students. How do we build relationships with these young people who we see almost every single day? And more specifically for those like me who teach in a Catholic school, how do I help students cultivate their relationship with Jesus?
During my first few years of teaching, I kept my distance from my students. I was their teacher, not their friend. They knew nothing about my personal life aside from maybe which basketball team I was rooting for that season or what I watched on TV. I never joked around with them because if I did, I thought the class would erupt in all kinds of crazy. And I never shared stories about my faith with them, because at the time, I felt those stories were only reserved for those closest in my life.
Over time, I began to realize that by keeping my distance from my students, I was harnessing the most powerful tool I had that would help me connect with them and meet them on their level: ME.
My students needed me. They needed me share my thoughts, dreams, fears, and favorites in order to see me as a real person, as someone they could look up to. They needed me to laugh and be silly and let go every once in a while (not too much, but just enough) to see that there is a time to be serious and work hard and a time to be free. They absolutely needed to hear me share stories about my faith journey, because just like them, I am a child of God. By being who I am, I inadvertently allow my students to be who they are.
Now, I obviously make every conscious effort to know where to draw the line. I am still not their friend, nor do I divulge every detail of what I do with my personal time. I joke around with them but never let it get out of hand. They’ve seen me be relaxed, but they also know that I expect nothing but the best from them, and that any form of disrespect will not be tolerated. There is still a divide between adults and children that should never be crossed. But if you share just a little bit of your human side with them, they feel more at ease, more willing to do for you what you ask of them. They feel comfortable asking me questions about concepts and topics they don’t understand, and when I try to help them, they don’t resist. (Most of the time…)
When I look back at my middle school experience, I remember very little about the things I read in textbooks or learned about in lectures. But I do remember finding it funny when my teacher would laugh at one of our jokes. I remember my 8th grade teaching sharing with us the story of how his wife died, and how broken he was for a long time. I remember when one of the seminarians that worked at our church (he was a super tall, skinny guy) showed us how he could reach the top of the door frame with his shoe by kicking his leg up really high. And I remember our principal dancing, just to make us laugh.
That’s what it’s all about. Sharing and laughing and learning and connecting. It’s about letting go and being who we really are, so that our young people can feel comfortable to be who they are meant to be.