Take CHARGE Day 2: Connectedness is foundational
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
Take CHARGE of the Classroom
Humans are social by nature. We exist in community and relationships drive everything we do. In talking to teachers about taking charge of their classrooms, the first thing I would discuss is not a discipline plan. I wouldn't talk about procedures, though those are important, or even engaging instruction.
I would talk about you.
How do you show up each day? How much of yourself do you bring into the classroom? Do you fully inhabit your instructional space or are you going through the motions? Students can tell the difference instantly. They can connect to teachers that are human. In fact, they long to do so.
Students won't connect with a cardboard cutout.
In Conscious Discipline, Dr. Becky Bailey explores the relationship between connectedness and behavior. She states that the former governs the latter, and that a common phrase teachers hear when disciplining children has a hidden meaning.
When a child says, "I don't care," he's really saying, "I don't feel cared for."
Relationships form the brain pathways that are responsible for meaning, the regulation of bodily states, and the modulation of emotion. Interconnectedness also guides the ability to focus and sustain attention, the organization of memories, and the capacity for interpersonal communication.
To put it succinctly, relationships drive learning.
When students feel accepted by the teacher and form a connection with him or her, their brains are given the green light to learn. The connection and affection must be genuine, however, for the minds of children are wired to resonate with others. They can smell counterfeit kindness a mile away.
The primary force in any classroom is you, the teacher. You set the tone for how things operate in the classroom. Many educators fail to commit 100% of themselves to their teaching for a variety of reasons. Some are distracted with personal matters, some believe that professional distance is beneficial. Others are too stressed while still others actively dream of doing anything but teaching.
When students sense that their teacher is not fully committed to inhabiting their shared space, they disconnect. Behaviors go awry and class cohesion diminishes. Before you mentally chastise your students for not trying their very best, look in the mirror. If you were accused of giving your all to teaching, to exerting every ounce of energy to improving the lives of students, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Taught by a 4th grader
My first year of teaching in 2000-2001 happened by accident. My goal, fresh out of college, was to be a preacher, and I was taking classes at a local seminary for that purpose. Needing a job however (ministry notoriously underpays), I found myself in an alternative certification program teaching fourth graders in Fort Worth, TX.
I had no idea what I was doing but, thankfully, the kids didn't seem to know what I was supposed to do either. So we simply had fun. We read textbooks, did worksheets, and had a lot of extended recesses. For me it was an 8:00-3:00 gig, something to do while I pursued my real passion - ministry.
But then Jessica wrote me a little note. As students often do, they'll write little notes without prompting as a way to show their affection or appreciation. I'll never forget the little text she wrote because it, for the first time, showed me the power of connectedness.
Dear Mr. Daffern,
I'm so glad you became a teacher instead of a preacher. I'll never forget you.
She didn't know it at the time, but Jessica showed me the power of connection. Without truly meaning to, I had changed her life. Something I had done, quite accidentally, had formed a connection between us. That channel was the avenue through which I taught her and I had no idea what it was. How did I connect with her? What was the secret ingredient? Could that connection be intentionally replicated with others?
I've spent the last 20 years trying to figure that out.
The first part of any classroom improvement is relationships. But what if you sense that you haven't fully connected with your students but you aren't sure why? You genuinely like them and you aren't simply going through the motions. You aren't three years away from retirement, mailing in your lesson plans.
Perhaps the missing ingredient is vulnerability.
In their book Click, the Brafman brothers talk about vulnerability as a key component for building instant connections. Being willing to disclose the kind of person you are, to drop your protective armor so to speak, can alter the entire dynamic of any classroom culture. They don't advocate over-disclosure, for too much information that comes out of nowhere can create distance rather than a connection. Instead, be yourself.
Being vulnerable in the classroom means being fully present. You share your hopes and dreams for teaching with your students. You take off your "perfect teacher" armor and talk to them as humans. Some teachers do this by sharing about their personal lives or hobbies. Talk about your family, your vacations, or what you do in your spare time. Pepper your instruction with personal anecdotes and express your sense of humor, whether it be corny or dry.
In the same way, take an active part in studying your students. Pretend you are Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees in the wild. What do your students like? What YouTube channels do they talk about? Many teachers have found that simply holding a three minute conversation about Fortnite or, heaven forbid, flossing or hyping (Fortnite emotes), can do wonders for connectedness.
Vulnerability is hard for some because, by definition, you leave yourself open. You make a bid for relationship and you don't know whether or not it will be reciprocated. In fear of this, many teachers keep a strictly professional distance between them and their students. They falsely believe that instruction can be boiled down to a simple formula. The teacher's job is to teach and the students' job is to learn.
Yet this ignores the cold hard truth about emotions. Relationships are the grease that keep the wheels of learning going. Interconnectedness drives human relationships and, without a sense of personal connection, classrooms are doomed before the bell even rings.
The connectedness of humanity
Improving the culture of a classroom without looking at the quality of student-teacher relationships is a non-starter. It's like trying to identify the structural weakness of a building while ignoring the fact that it's built on a pile of sand. As humans, social interactions form the foundation of everything we do.
Students must feel connected with the classroom, both with their teacher and their classmates. As a part of a larger whole, they open themselves up to new things, such as learning and growing. Students that feel isolated and alone are disconnected. So much of their mental space is consumed by the impact of their aloneness that every type of growth, from intellectual to social, is beyond their reach.
Do you want to take charge of your classroom? Start by building relationships. Start by being fully human instead of a just a cardboard cutout.
Action: Reflect on your interactions with your students. Find one personal tidbit, whether it be a hobby, a family relationship (students love hearing about your children or nieces/nephews), or a daily experience, and share it with students. Note how they receive the anecdote.
Reflection questions: Do you hold a part of yourself back from your students? Are you frightened that your students might not accept or appreciate that part of you? How does that withholding affect your classroom culture?
Bailey, R. A. (2015). Conscious discipline: building resilient classrooms. Oviedo, FL: Loving Guidance.
Brafman, O., & Brafman, R. (2010). Click: the magic of instant connections. New York: Broadway Books.
To read Day 3, click here.