May 14, 2006

Moments Matter?

Kids need to know we care about them. That it’s important to you that they come to class everyday and give their best effort. By taking a moment to talk to them personally they come to understand that you care not just about their attendance but also about their personal success.

Some people call them “teachable moments.” But that term generally refers to those moments during class when your instruction takes an unscheduled but welcomed turn. While those moments are very important, and can be wonderful affirmations of our efficacy as teachers, the more personal moments we spend with students, when we make a connection between individuals, has an even greater impact.

When I was student teaching high school English my master teacher gave me a great tool for the last six weeks of school. During the first week in May he gave the students a list of vocabulary words, short stories, and essays that they could complete at their own pace without direct instruction (having already occurred). It was an opportunity for the students to work independently while the teacher began to close out the school year. Brilliant.

I’ve used this technique ever since to great success. By the end of the third quarter I am effectively finished with any type of instruction and students are heavily involved in completing both group and individual assignments due in late May and June. At this time of year I am freed up to grade projects, and work more closely with students. Since the format of the day is less teacher-focused and more student-structured, I am able to move around the room checking in with groups and answering individual questions.

More than any other time during the school year, I now have opportunities to develop and refine relationships with the students. These relationships often lead off topic and into the kids’ more personal concerns. For example, one of my students stopped me after school Friday to ask for my guidance concerning a close friend of his involved in drugs. I counseled him the best I could. Another student just bought his first Jeep. I gave him some suggestions as to where to go for service and parts.

These conversations may not be a regular part of the curriculum, but the impact on the students is long lasting. Of course I would never commit an entire hour to Jeep repair, but within the context of a working environment, there should be time allowed for sharing beyond the confines of the class work. Students learn from teachers in obvious and intentional ways as well as ways unseen and unplanned.

My high school Algebra and Geometry teacher was named Bob. Bob loved to tell us stories about his time in the war. We soaked it up like syrup on pancakes. Students learn from us when we share our stories. But storytelling is only one-way communication. Dialogue is a far more effective tool when we pay attention to who they are and are willing to connect at a level they understand.

This year my advanced students are a little nutty. Enthusiastic, exuberant, and fun to spend time with for sure, but they are also a little bit out of control from time to time. One of their assignments is a 5-minute personal project video. One student is recording different dance styles to put to music. He wants to include my dancing in his project. I’m no dancer; but I do feel the “movement of the beat” occasionally. I’m a good sport so I let him record just a few seconds of my moves.

Another thing I have time for at this time of year are letters of recommendation. Taking a moment to write a letter about a student for their college application or personal portfolio is important. I am always shocked, usually in good ways, by the things people write about me. I just don’t see myself the way others do, and neither do our students. A great deal of positive good can be achieved through taking a few moments to write down your observations about a student in a professional format that can be used to expand their horizons. I’ve even written a few letters to vouch for the good character of students facing expulsion. Those letters can sometimes by difficult to phrase correctly. However, taking time to write a short positive letter that helps a reformed student return to school is worth anybody’s time.

I don’t have an office, so like Fonzie in the men’s room, when I need a private moment to speak frankly with a student we have to step outside my classroom. I have had many important, perhaps even life-changing, discussions with kids I felt needed to hear an adult speak honestly with them about their choices. Without judgment or pretense I have shared my perspective and what I hope was useful experience. (I made enough rotten choices in my own life to be an expert.)

It’s in these moments that our job as teacher transcends the cold distance between lecture and desk and takes on an intimacy when lives truly can be changed. Not all teachers are comfortable with sharing their life stories, or taking the time to get to know their students, and that’s fine. But it is the teachers who do put forth the extra effort who will be remembered fondly by their students.

Every morning in the fall a young lady walked into my classroom looking down at the floor, sat at her desk, and would not talk to anyone unless she was forced to. I got into the habit of welcoming her to the classroom every time she walked through the doorway. For the first few weeks she would wait outside for other students to walk in, and then hide behind them so I wouldn’t see her come in. That never worked. Eventually she would show a small smile when she heard me say, “howdy.” At the semester break she was moved into sixth period. A few weeks later she began to say hello to me when she walked into class. Quiet and shy, if anyone else was speaking near me I would miss her greeting. Now, every day she walks into class with a bright smile and makes sure I hear her say, “hello.”

The little moments we take to acknowledge our students matter a lot more than we might think. With all of the standards, and test preparation teachers are required to do today, it’s not easy to take time to communicate to the kids that they are important individuals, not just test takers, worthy of our personal time and attention.

Please post your comments below.


  1. Your repeated attempts to get through to this student reminded me of a few I have had that I made my 'mission in life' to get them to smile. For one, it was because I almost fell into a huge! garbage can in the front of my class as I as making an enthusiastic point; the other, just by referring to him/her as 'smiley' enough. Of course, with the latter, I knew it would be ok since s/he gave me a slight one when I said it the first time. I don't make a habit of nicknaming students, but sometimes, that bit of banter lets them know we care... and that is just as important to me to express as is the correct way to punctuate something.

  2. You've made some very good points about building relationships which I am currently thinking seriously about. You would think in an elementary classroom you have more time than highschool to build relationships with students but that time has to be planned out carefully. I want to provide more independent time so I can work with individuals more.

  3. Thank you for reiterating how important student-teaching relationships are. When I gain a student's respect, their work ethic and attitude change exponentially. I am a young teacher, so instead of being recognized in a positive manner for this, I am usually told that I am "too close" to my students. However, I am well aware of the fine line, and I work on that line each day. I feel that so many "veteran" teachers need to remember how important we can be in our students' lives. On many days, we might be the only positive voice that they hear in their life...thank you for your daily encouragement.