Relationships Matter: I am Glad to be THAT Teacher!

--Originally published at CAROLINA R BUITRAGO

Teaching is the most amazing profession in the world. I wouldn’t do anything else, but teach! It might not buy you a Ferrari or vacations in Greece, but it gives you the reward of affecting lives forever. Teaching gives you the gifts of wide smiles, glowing eyes and tight hugs. And in my case, flipping my classes, and becoming an obsessed flipper has given me the willingness to grow personally, professionally and academically for my students. In the interest of creating a flexible environment and a learning culture in my classrooms, I have become THAT teacher.

Last semester brought me many learning experiences that allowed me to connect with my students at a very deep level. In my English class, at the beginning of the semester, we had a storytelling activity where students opened up their hearts and shared the life-changing stories that made them who they are now. I am an EFL teacher, and I could have settled for just checking the appropriate use of the past tense and my students’ ability to tell stories. Instead, I was opening my students’ Pandora’s boxes of life and acting like a gigantic ear for them.

Throughout the semester, I organized “feedback sessions” (I know some of you call them teacher-student conferences) that turned into 2 minutes of “these are my questions about my English” and 10-15 minutes of “this is how my life is going”. I became that go-to adult for most of my young adult learners. Yes, in class, we talked about verbs and idiomatic expressions, but we also talked about the future, life and self-worth.

To top it all off, something that drove me to the edge happened…one of my students faced a hard situation of depression. And, I do know about flipped learning, educational technology and student-centered learning, but I didn’t know anything about depression, so I had to learn. I watched TED talks, read articles, talked to a psychologist, and did what I could to understand what he was going through and how I could help. And his situation, made me aware of his friends’ struggle, and all of my other students’ emotional situation.

All of those harsh things that happened to my students united us as a family, united them as a group. Students share classes, teachers and homework assignments, but this time they got to realize they also shared struggles, fears, issues and more. Students’ attitudes to each other improved and they were very supportive of each other.

I’m really thankful to Flipped Learning for making me see what really matters. As a teacher, I have always tried to build safe and effective environments in my classes. Environments where my students feel making mistakes is okay for the learning process, environments where all students feel equally loved and respected. Environments where academic aspects are carefully taken care of, but where the person matters as much as the student. Last semester, however, was very special because of the amazing connection we achieved. So, if I had to give myself some advice to apply for this new semester starting this week and become THAT teacher, I would give myself the following tips (they might also apply for you):

1. Listen to your students empathetically and emphatically

Teachers’ lives are full. We have our fears and struggles, we have to plan classes and grade papers. We have to fulfill standards and cover the curriculum, yes. But our true mission is with students. With educating them for life, not for passing a test. Thus, if we really want to achieve something with students in terms of knowledge, we need to have a fertile soil to work on (I love this metaphor of the soil used by my friend Helaine Marshall). Our students’ lives sometimes get in between their learning and them. It might be a teenage break-up, or the passing of a loved one, of fear of being a failure and disappointing their parents, but all those things, even if they seem trivial for us, adults, affect our students. They might not be able to concentrate, or to study effectively if they have one of these problems revolting around their heads. Thus, by listening to them we might help them clear their minds up for learning from all the noise of their lives.

2. Don’t underestimate a student’s problem.

For adults, teenage and young adult problems might seem irrelevant. Really, Andrea, you are not studying because you broke up with your boyfriend? Might a teacher ask. Thing is, for Andrea, it is not just the break-up what is keeping her from being a successful learner, but all of the implications of the break-up. She might be feeling inadequate, fearful, sad and disappointed. Just listen to her, empathetically ( as in the first tip) and she’ll come around. Give value to her problem, show her you care and understand what she is going through.

3. Don’t think this is not your job.

When I walk into a classroom and I see my most energetic, talkative student quiet in the corner, I immediately realize something is wrong. Or the opposite, when I see the quietest of my students suddenly having a burst of energy, I realize something has happened. I just ask, are you okay? Sometimes the question triggers a “Yes, teacher, I’m fine, thanks for asking” along with a smile, and some other times it is a pouting lip and watery eyes. Just open your ears and heart to your students. Sometimes they just need to be heard.

4. Authentically care

Don’t say “How are you?” just to say it. Mean it. Sometimes a teacher is the first person who can realize what’s going on in the mind of a student. With working or disengaged parents, students keep quiet for too long. As teachers, we see our students everyday and have all the power to see what goes on with them. Use that power to make a difference in their lives.

5. It is not personal

I wish I had known this two semesters ago  when everything went to hell with one of my classes because of one of my student’s attitudes. I wish I had seen that it was not me, but what I represented what bothered him so much. As teachers, we inevitably embody authority, and some students have problems with that. Their beliefs about women and their role in society (believe it or not, in Colombia some people are still pretty chauvinist). Their beliefs about themselves and their learning can clash with your teaching style and create a toxic class atmosphere. Just realize it is not personal and try to reconcile with the fact that not all of your students are going to connect with you at the same level. However, try! Always try to connect!

I will take a look at this blog post every time I’m feeling things are not going well. Sometimes, it is not a matter of the course content not being interesting or relevant. Sometimes, it is all about students’ lives and hearts. Be that teacher who realizes, be that teacher who cares, be that teacher who notices and helps. I’m  really glad to have had the chance to have heard Aaron Sams talk about these kinds of issues at FlipTech, and also to have sort of participated in the #flipclasschat about students’ mental health. But definitely, we do have to continue talking about this issue. 

 

Be THAT teacher.

Dedication: To ALL my students in UNICA, thanks for everything you teach me every day! I’m sorry I didn’t have any more pictures! I need pics with everyone!

 

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