I was recently asked what message I would share with a cohort of pre-service educators who were about to begin their work in the teaching profession. My answer was that students will work hardest and learn best from people who they like and who they trust. Focus now on understanding that it's not how expert you are in your content, or how creative your lesson planning is, or how fair and balanced your assessments are, even though I know those are the things that you are concerned about getting right at the moment. You'll want to look professional, but don't forget to be personal.
Ultimately, it's the relationships that matter, not the content. I have always believed that the five minutes you spend with a student before or after class talking about something important to them will be remembered long after the hour you spent with them diagramming a sentence or going over polynomials is long forgotten.
That became an even more evident to me over the last month.
May is Teacher Appreciation Month, and during each school day, my principal Mr. Podraza and I selected a student at random and asked which teacher they appreciate(d) most at EGHS. "Who made the biggest difference to you, and why?" We used each response to let teachers know that they were selected by a student and included any comments that those students made through the EGHS "You Matter" Form.
The comments said a lot about what matters to kids and what provides the best teaching and learning opportunities and environments. To date: these are the responses from our students elaborating on what was important to them:
... although they are "not the best (subject) student" they have had you for three years and your classroom environment, lessons and the warmth, caring and understanding that you show your students makes them more confident and feel good even when they struggle.
...the personal interest and understanding that you showed them made a big difference. You helped them with "everything, even Sr. Project" and they would not have made it without you.
...the personal knowledge and understanding that you show everyone makes a big difference in their experience here. You always know when they need help, are having a bad day or need to catch up and you always demonstrate personal caring and offer help and solutions to make things better. This student literally shined and glowed when she spoke about you and the impact that you had on her.
...it was a "really difficult" decision because she had so many great teachers over the years, but she picked you because you not only are "a great teacher, but a person that you can really talk to as well.".
..."I was really horrible at (subject) and really thought I couldn't do it, but (teacher) always took the time after school to work with me one on one and then I really did get it and felt so much better. He's a great guy and teacher"
...it was a "really difficult" decision because she had five teachers over the years who she would say were deserving, but she picked you because you "made me work harder than any teacher I ever had- and made me WANT to work hard for her. She knows that you love and care about your students and that she could talk to you about anything. She said that she was one of three juniors in AP last year and the three weeks left after the senior exited were the best time of her EGHS career because she got to work even more closely with you then and show you how much she wanted to work because you were her teacher".
...she's fun and she is really nice. She really cares about us and how we do in school."
...because (course) was my favorite course that I have had since Freshman year. He took a personal interest in me and become a mentor as well as a teacher and because of him I have had opportunities to do some things that I would otherwise not have and they changed my life. I think of (teacher) not only as a great teacher but as a friend."
... a lot of kids have a hard time with (subject), but she is a really good teacher and she does a great job of explaining things. She really cares about how we do in school, and she's really organized and she helps us stay organized."
"He is a great teacher, but he is also like a coach and an advisor. You can talk to him about things, and you can tell he really listens and cares".
...it was a "really hard" decision because she had so many great teachers, but she picked you because you not only are "a great teacher, but you really get to know your students as people too. You understand that there are more important things than conjugating verbs correctly and you help them in so many other ways because you care about everyone in your classes."
..."He makes you feel that you can open up to him. He makes you feel very comfortable. He really listens to everyone".
..."He really gets to know you. He personalizes so much that afterwards you feel you can go to him with any issue and he will be able to help you".
..."I had him as a freshman and again this year, and I am really happy because he helped me evolve as a writer- to take risks-and I really developed. I appreciate being able to talk to him inside and outside of the classroom. he's a great teacher and person."
... because he's really an inspiring teacher, and he cares about his students a lot. When I was sick he was so understanding and checked up on me and made sure I was doing well in and out of school."
"He saw through my apathy in his class and recognized that I had the potential to be a good writer and he was able to draw that out of me. Now, because of him, writing is something that I love to do and I will always appreciate that."
...because she really gets to know you on a personal as well as a student/teacher level. She's a really interesting person and has such great stories. I think of her as a friend."
"He has a really fun, loose classroom, but he demands your respect and that you respect others at the same time. That's really cool. He creates an atmosphere where all kids can learn, and I learned best in his class because I looked forward to it every day."
"I'm not the greatest student but she never gives up on me. She is always willing to help me. She really cares about her students. She is just a great person".
"He is a really difficult teacher, but he spends so much time giving you specific feedback, you can't help but get better if you pay attention. You can also tell that he spends so much time actually reading your work because the feedback is so specific, it makes you feel that what you do is important. He also remembers what you write because he will bring it up when he talks to you inside and outside of class".
... he really gets to know your students in and out of class and you teach them important skills that they can use now, but also for the rest of your life.
"He's very relatable and approachable. Really nice, cool guy. More than just a teacher and authority figure. He's rare.".
"I appreciate him for his interest and passion for what he teaches. He's also a funny guy, I love his class ".
"She does things like writing a personalized note to every student in our class because she cares about us as individuals, and it made her stand out as someone who really cares, it makes a big difference when a teacher cares about you.".
"He's the sweetest person and everyone loves him. He makes you want to work hard for him. I wish he taught a more more subjects because I would work so hard and learn so much better from someone like him. He tells us about his life and his kids and its alwas clear that he cares about us in a real way."
..."you are not easy, but you make everyone work really hard. You demand it of them in a caring way because you know that they can do better. Your class is really interesting and fun because of the atmosphere that you create for everyone to be comfortable and take risks."
"she has done so much for me and for a lot of people, I am definitely not the only one who would pick her."
"I was never very good in (subject), but I got a lot better with her because I really love her teaching style, she's direct and strict and I like her attitude and demeanor. She doesn't allow any foolishness.".
"I was getting all "F's" and she worked really hard with me and motivated me to get over the hump and I did, she saved me from wasting a whole year."
"you were both his teacher and coach, and you made him love working hard for you. He said that he never really worked hard before in class or in a sport, but you made it what he wanted to do and he got better in both because of you."
"you really care about every kid in the room individually and it matters to you that they do their best. You also will take as much time as anyone needs during or after school to help them with anything. It's obvious how much everyone means to you."
"He's very realistic about challenging your skill level and he has such a great classroom environment. Also, he was a great advisor and really likes to get to know his kids"
"He does a great job of teaching you life skills as well as classroom skills. He's a great listener and tries to help with whatever you need advice on."
"...it's so obvious that she cares about her kids. I had her for 2 second semester classes and she took an interest in everything we were doing, even things not in her class. Like Sr. Project, she was happy to look at our proposals and all the work we had to do and helped make it better even though she's not the Coordinator and she really didn't have to care about it. But she does, and it's clear when you have her."
"...he's an AWESOME teacher, and it's so subtle, you don't even realize that you're learning something in there because it's not like work and then you take a test and it's like... wow... I did learn a lot. It's really cool."
"He makes class interesting and I always look forward to going there. He's a really nice guy and he takes an interest in what students do in and out of class."
"I was new here this year and he really was welcoming and so nice to me. He made it easy. He's also a funny guy, I love talking to him and his class ".
"...you really care about every kid in the room individually and it matters to you that they do their best. You also will take as much time as anyone needs during or after school to help them with anything. It's obvious how much everyone means to you."
The talents, skills and traits of our best teachers are not measured by any standardized test. They have nothing to do with content knowledge or the effective use of technology, they aren't affected by time constraints or budgets or professional development, but they might be the most important things that you can do in your classroom to promote teaching and learning.
The reality is that if you can't convince kids that you care about them, that they can trust you, that they are safe taking risks in your classroom, and that failing is an important part of learning and that it's OK, then none of that other stuff matters.
In my opinion, great teachers focus on connections, caring, and kindness and then think about creating their engaging lesson plans, with or without the incorporation of technology, they find opportunities to constantly formatively assess the classroom for understanding and use that to drive instruction and then provide regular feedback to kids on their progress.
Those are the kinds of teachers who not only deliver content, but changes lives.
You really do matter in the lives of kids. Isn't that ultimately what it's all about?