When I came back to school for the first time since the Coronavirus closed the building, there were a pile of letters waiting for me in my mailbox.
I took them to my empty classroom and read the first one:
“Hello Mr. Singer, I just thought you should know that you are the greatest teacher I’ve had since Kindergarten all the way to my freshman year of High School and probably will remain that way forever. You always helped me with my work when I was behind and gave me extra time to finish it. Your class was the class I looked forward to every day. You were always a nice and funny man. Thank you for being there for me and everyone else in your classes. I’ll be sure to visit you after school every now and then…”
I picked up another:
“You have no idea how much I miss you… I quite miss our talks after class about video games, movies and musicals. As cheesy as it sounds, I always looked forward to them; especially during the days I was having problems with other students, your wise words always helped…”
“…we had fun times in your class. There wasn’t one non-fun day that we had because if we was going to have a bad day you made it better and way more fun. You also helped us a lot even when we didn’t ask for it. When people didn’t want to do our work, you got them happy and got them to do their work. Thanks for everything and thanks for helping me be a smarter kid.”
I felt a lump forming in my throat.
My cheeks were hot.
And why was my face wet?
I hadn’t expected any of this.
After a semester of distance learning, I’d come back to school to return all the materials I had hastily marauded from my own filing cabinets and book shelves.
I had stopped in the office merely as a matter of course.
With the school year at a close, I had gathered the odds and ends in my mailbox including this bundle of correspondence.
Now as I sat at my desk smiling, laughing and crying – experiencing each letter like a warm hug on a winters day – I remembered something Ms. Williams had said in an email.
She had assigned a thank you letter to her high school business classes. Her students had to write a formal thank you to a previous teacher. But that was all that was required. Who they wrote to and what they said was entirely up to them.
She had written to me months ago to let me know these letters were coming.
It was just bad luck that the assignment was due just as the global pandemic closed everything down so I was only reading them now.
Kids usually spend about 1,000 hours with their teachers in a single year.
During that time we build strong relationships.
While just about everyone will tell you this is important, we’re often talking about different things.
Some policymakers will insist on limiting that relationship to connections that increase academic outcomes. Others advise a more holistic approach.
Both are backed by research.
A review of 46 educational studies concluded that strong student-teacher relationships are associated with positive outcomes in everything from higher student academic engagement, attendance and grades, better behavior and fewer suspensions to higher graduation rates. And this is true of both short term and long term effects and even after controlling for differences in student backgrounds.
However, many studies disregard everything but standardized test scores. That is the primary goal and arbiter of effectiveness. As such, in those cases the relationship they are looking for is much different than in those with broader aims.
A 2018 study from Arizona State University found a disparity in teacher-training programs that highlighted this difference.
Some programs prioritized an “instrumental focus” with students where teachers were encouraged to use personal information on students to get them to behave and do their work. The goal was compliance not autonomy or problem solving.
Other programs valued a more “reciprocal focus” where students and teachers exchanged information to come to a mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Here the goal was free thought, questioning, and engagement with authority figures.
Moreover, the study found that the differences in focus corresponded to where aspiring teachers were expected to get a job after the training was complete. The instrumental focused teacher prep programs invariably trained incoming educators for low-income and high-minority schools. The reciprocal approach was preferred for teachers preparing for wealthier and whiter students.
So once again the physical segregation of our children becomes “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But while President George W. Bush used that famous phrase to demonize anyone who thought poverty and racism were barriers to achievement, it is actually a focus on test scores that is bigoted.
We expect teachers to care about their wealthy white students but merely manipulate their poor brown ones.
This just goes to justify my own reciprocal approach in the classroom.
Test-obsessed policy makers will tell educators to manage everything with a clipboard and a spreadsheet – for example, to increase the percentage of positive interactions vs negative ones in a given class period. But such a data-centric mindset dehumanizes both student and teacher.
The goal cannot be to maximize numbers whether they be test scores or some other metric. It has to be about the relationship, itself.
Teachers have to care about their students. All teachers. All students.
Or at least we have to try.
A little bit of empathy goes a long way. And not just to get students to jump through hoops.
You have to care about each student as a person.
The goal can never be a test score. It has to be self actualization.
Teachers have to help kids become their best selves. And the definition of what counts as your best self is largely defined by the student, his- or herself.
How telling that we implicitly understand this when it comes to high socioeconomic kids with lighter skin! How pathetic that we lower our sights when it comes to poor kids and children of color.
I teach mostly minority students in a low income school in Western Pennsylvania. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve always fought against this prescription to see student relationships as instrumental to their outcomes.
And the results are evident in what they wrote to me.
“…now that I’m no longer in your class I’ve decided it was about time that I give you a proper thank you for all you did, putting up with me and dealing with me in class… You helped me learn how to write essays. But most important of all, for two years you made school fun for me again, which was something I thought was impossible.”
“…Everyday I was always looking forward to having your class because I knew that having your class would be thrilling. I miss having your class because you made me laugh and in return I made you laugh a couple of times.”
“…Being in your class made me enjoy learning and reading more. It was almost always something I looked forward to throughout my day. We were always learning about interesting topics and I was never bored in your class… Thank you for being the greatest teacher ever and a cool dude.”
“…I’ll never forget you as long as I live.”
“You were my favorite teacher because your class was always fun and we were always doing fun things and fun projects in your class and your class was never boring. You also taught us a lot of useful things… we’ve been using them so far this year. You were also never in a bad mood and always were positive in the morning so you always brought my energy up… I never looked forward to a morning class besides your class because I knew that we were going to do something fun.”
“…Your class was the only class that I got excited for because we always read good stories and did fun things… I also wanted to say I’m sorry for talking and disrupting the classroom when I was carrying on. I should have been paying attention to what you had to say and what you were trying to teach me.”
“It was interesting to have a teacher that wrote a book because not a lot of teachers write books. It was also interesting [you had a] TED Talk…”
“You have had some pretty good accomplishments in your life if I may say so. Like your book “Gadfly on the Wall”, and I have to say it’s a pretty good book. I read some of it and I get what you’re saying.”
“…middle school was hard for me. I had difficult days with tons of IXLS piled [on from other classes] but instead of you giving them to me you actually taught me by yourself. Also we were able to joke around a lot about books and just random things in class.”
“…you taught me how to write and put punctuation in my sentences and in my paragraphs. Coming into your class in the beginning of 7th grade I didn’t know how to read that good or consistent… My vocabulary and speech increased in your class.”
“…You always had a way to make the class fun or easy. Also you always had a way to keep me on track and prepared… If I didn’t have you for 7th and 8th grade I don’t think I would be able to handle 9th grade… I’m glad to of had you for two years because I learned double the stuff and was double ready for 9th grade. I’m doing well [now] because of you…”
“I wanted to write to you because you’re honestly my favorite teacher and you kept my spirits up. I had your class for two years [7th and 8th grade]; the first year I wasn’t sure how I felt about you but overtime I realized you’re pretty cool. I loved Socratic Seminars . They were a way to voice your opinion and that’s always fun… You helped me find a few of my favorite books like “The Outsiders”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and “The Diary of Anne Frank” which my friends and I still mention to this day… I’m in the musical this year and… without you I don’t think I would have been able to build up the courage to try out… You made me the person I am today. You taught me to challenge things that are unfair and to treat people with respect.”
Those are just some of the highlights.
I think more than anything I could say, they prove the point.
But to put a cherry on top, I’ll add one last thing.
In my 8th grade poetry unit, we watch “Dead Poets Society.”
Last year my students threatened to reenact the ending of the film where the kids stand on their desks to honor Mr. Keating, their English teacher who taught them to think for themselves instead of being cogs in the machine.
On the last day of school, they did it, too.
I cautioned against it because I didn’t want anyone to fall and get hurt. But when the last bell rang and emotions ran high, I simply took the compliment.
A year later, they must have remembered the moment as much as I did because many, many of the letters weren’t addressed just to Mr. Singer.
They were addressed to “Oh Captain! My Captain!”
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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!