September 28, 2004

Why are we learning this?

Relevance is important to kids today. I tell my students to always ask their teachers, "why are we learning this?" Teachers need to be relevant in the classroom, not only with subject matter, but also with who they are as people. This can be a tricky matter. Teachers are the authority in the classroom, and therefore must be prepared to take on that responsibility. We are the adults in charge. But what does being adult mean? Does it mean that we present a facade of who we think we are suppose to be? Do we become the authoritarian, the nice guy, or the crazy one? Students can see through those acts like looking through a window. We need to connect with our students not just as teacher and pupil, but as people.

But how? How do we adults connect with today's youth. The best teachers I had growing up were those who I felt I shared something in common. Often it was love of the subject matter, like drama, or math. But sometimes it was something more. I connected with those teachers who were willing to see me for who I was, a struggling, confused, kid, and then present themselves honestly. Nobody liked the teacher who screamed at the students, and then spoke of acting appropriately in class. Or the one who never smiled, but then expected the students to appreciate them. Kids always loved the teachers who would share stories of their lives and allow themselves to be fully-human.

When I taught middle school I was surprised at how kids reacted to the news that I had a wife, children and a home. They seemed shocked that I left the classroom at the end of the day. I swear that one of them was constantly looking for the cot I slept in at night. Sure, kids see us as authority figures, mentors, and guides, but they need to see our human side as well.

We are teaching more than how to write a great essay, or when the Battle of the Bulge took place. We are teaching our kids to be people. And we seem to be doing more and more of that every year, as students seem to spend less and less time with family. Students are watching us all the time to learn their values, perspective, and beliefs. How we share our own values, perspectives, and beliefs is critically important. We need to be as transparent as the glass in the window, and let the students take whatever lessons they can from their experience with us.

So how do we connect with students? First, as Dr. Phil would say, we need to "get real." We need to be confident enough as individual to authentically be ourselves in the classroom. Kids know right away if you are real or not. First impressions are important, and trying to convince them of who you are after you've set the tone is a difficult challenge.

One of my favorite teachers was a man named Bob. Bob taught me high school algebra and geometry. Bob was a WWII vet, and loved to share his stories of being a rear gunner. And we loved to hear his stories. Anytime I didn't want to work, I would ask Bob about his life. He was in his later years when I was in his class, and he loved to share his experiences. Sure, it worked to get him off the topic of math, but at the same time, I learned more about courage from his time in the service than I did calculating Pythagorus. Yes I learned math, but more importantly, I learned the importance of serving my country, and the pride that came with surviving battle. Bob connected with his students.

Share your stories with your students. Be who you are. Don't get caught up in the attitude that a teacher only acts a certain way. How you dress, what music you listen to, or whether or not you know the names of the Gravity Games athletes is not important. Being human and trusting who you are in front of your students is very important. Our job is to not only impart knowledge, but also to share our wisdom as well. Be relevant and you will connect with every one of your students.

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