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For me, teaching is more about relationship that it is about content or skill.  That is, unless I can build a relationship where students will trust me, it is hard to challenge them to the kind of intellectual growth that really matters, which is far more than memorizing facts or performing well on various tests, mine or those imposed from the outside.

Once early in my career as a high school teacher, I found my students were not necessarily "getting it."  It was not just that they were not growing as I expected.  Rather, it was that I had failed to connect with them in a way that let them know it.  So over Christmas break I wrote each student a note, finding something to affirm even as I challenged her.  I tried to demonstrate knowledge of that individual student, that I was paying attention to him.

I have done something similar every year since.  This year, because I am new to the school and do not start with the advantage that my reputation as a teacher makes students more willing to trust me and take the risks they need to grow and learn, I decided to do it over our Thanksgiving break, since I have 9 days without seeing the students.    I wrote a Facebook post when I started doing it:  

Today I begin an important but time-consuming task. I will write a note on a thank-you card to every single one of my students, finding something to praise even as I might also offer challenges. Theywill get the, in envelopes addressed to them, when I see them next week (no classes this week). Effective teaching requires relationship, and this is an important part of my trying to help establish the context for positive learning, which will require my students to trust me.
I got back several interesting responses, which I would like to share, along with a few additional thoughts, below the fold.

One response was from a friend who has lived a very interesting life, not fully developing his mind until after his distinguished military service in Vietnam.  He wrote

i'm sure that putting the human to human transaction into teaching is something important. i was almost through high school before a teacher did that with me. in college that approach probably helped to save my life.
There were other interesting comments and affirmations from adult friends.  For example, this:  
Relationships are critically important. My son goes by his middle and it was a problem from kindergarten to his senior year. Fairfax County is so high tech they can't create a field for the name a student actually uses. (Whole separate rant) I loved the notes, emails and even conferences where teachers referred to my son by a name he has never used. I suggested if they were earnestly concerned about his progress in their class, they might start with learning his name. Geez - now I'm having mommy PTSD flashbacks. So many wasted opportunities in education that don't cost a dime.
I responded back to that noting that I always try to call a student as s/he wishes to be addressed, although I did have to draw the line with some middle school girls who wanted to be called by their gang monikers -  I am NOT making that up.

But what most struck me was the very first comment, from a former student whom I taught a number of years ago:  

I still have the one you wrote for me my sophomore year!
As I have found out over the years, she is not alone.  Some save the written comments, others remember occasions when I pulled them aside to make clear I understood them, and cared for them beyond what they did in my classroom.

I have done cards for four of my six classes.  I will finish one more this morning, and perhaps the last this afternoon.

The students will not see the cards until next week, half on Monday half on Tuesday, because we are on an alternating day schedule, which can allow them to take 8 classes, with 4 90 minute periods daily.

I stop and reflect about each student.  What is it that is most important for me to say to him?  How can this be an occasion of affirming, even if I must challenge.

For some it is simple, I thank them for starting to do their work.

For one young lady it was that she finally confided in me that she was having trouble with her medication for her emotional problems.  What is interesting is that once she offered that confidence, that trust, and I accepted it, her work and her focus have improved remarkably.

Others share the travails of adolescence -  conflicts with parents, or one young man whose girlfriend broke up with him, but since all their friends were common he felt he had no one with whom to sit at lunch.  

Intellectual learning does not occur in a vacuum, isolated from other aspects of the lives of the students, who may be homeless, or undocumented, or have a parent deployed overseas or who just lost a job as we enter the holidays.  Students may have health issues.  Students may feel overmatched.  They may not understand WHY they have to take a particular course, or of what value it will be for them.

For some it is very hard for them to get out of their comfort zones and take the risks necessary to learn.  Some of these are the brightest, who are used to succeeding, and terrified of getting something wrong.  And yet, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), they have to learn how to take appropriate risks, how to fail successfully.

I have one outstanding junior who does not think she is a leader, yet I know from her classmates that given the opportunity they would pick her to speak for them.  For her I want to encourage her to understand and accept how much of a natural leader she is.

I have another student in the same class who is in the top ten academically, who has leadership positions galore given her by her peers and by adults, and for whom I think I have obtained an internship with a Congressional office with a representative from another state (which if it does not pan out I have a Senator willing to offer her an internship).  I did not thank her for any of that, but for something more important - one of the other students in that class panicked early on, thinking she could not do the work.  She asked to go to the rest room, but did not return.  C.... gave up her lunch hour when we got the young lady back and sat with her and encouraged her.  That empathy from a peer enabled me also to reach the concerned young lady, who is now beginning to blossom in that class.  It is for that empathy, that concern for another person, that I thanked  C....

People ask me what I teach.  My answer always starts with this -  students.  It is the individual persons who are why at age 67 I am still in a classroom each school day.

Perhaps my attempt at reaching out will not succeed with all.  But I know it will make a difference with some.

And I hope there is a larger lesson - that they will learn the importance of affirming others.

And perhaps, just perhaps, they may remember that we teachers also need to be thanked, because we are not always sure we are making the difference, that our efforts are of value.

I still have the one you wrote for me my sophomore year!   She is one of hundreds of former students who have chosen to  be my Facebook Friends, who periodically tell me directly of things in their lives.  

A bit more than a week ago I offered this meditation here

When I put the link to it up on my Facebook page, I got a long and thoughtful response from a former student:  

Life is what it is. We do the things we find value in. I mean it's never really about saving the world, is it? It's about easing that burden we feel inside ourselves that tells us we should act when we can for some vague sense of the greater good. This gives our lives purpose. Though we know that our time is fleeting and will matter little in the vast history of an infinite universe, we do what we can because we feel it is right and that it is good. I will tell you that you are a man I will never forget, and you have been a tremendous influence in my life, as you have been to countless others. Life is a journey, and the people we meet and the things we are taught make us who we are. Be assured then, that what change may come from the people you inspire, or the lives they touch, will be the product of what you've helped make them. Do not, therefore, be disheartened, for you too have been strengthened by your trials and the people you've met and the things you've learned. You may be tired, but you are not weak. Know that the work you do does indeed make a difference, though you may not be able to see it yet. Good luck to you Mr. Bernstein. I hope you are able to see your purpose again and believe in your value once more.
It is because of things like this that I know the importance of building relationships with students.

I am grateful for the opportunity.

I appreciate their letting me into their lives.

I try to tell them so.

Which is why I write thank you notes.

Thought this might be worth sharing.

Make of it what you will.

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