One of my favorite edu-speakers is Todd Whitaker. He often says “If you want to change student behavior, you need to start by changing adult behavior.” Many schools begin the year chanting the mantra of relationships. Some even develop a relationship theme or move from a behavior policy to a relationship policy. While those are certainly moves in the right direction, I still fear many teachers simply regard this as a shift away from student responsibility. I wonder if they feel threatened by the language that suggests some impossible teaching nirvana, a nirvana that fails to address “Barry” that is seated in the back breaking pencils. In reality, we need reminded that students don’t want dramatic displays of affection or one-off events to build relationships on day one. They don’t want our personal life poured out, they don’t want a social media connection, and they don’t want to stop by for tea or coffee. We need to remember the drip effect. It’s the steady, daily acts of care that yield the largest gains. It’s the high five in the hallway, the eye contact as we walk through the cafeteria, the 20-second conversation by the busses, the positive phone call home, or the handwritten note dropped in a locker.
As adults, we generally steer clear of people who want an instant relationship. Imagine the person you meet in the grocery store line that invites you and your spouse on a 7-day cruise to the Bahamas. Too much too soon is awkward! Relationships grow with steady drips, not in a hour-long assembly or one lesson involving paint and slime. In the adult world, it’s the kind word at the door as you enter school or the thinking of you text message that strengthens a positive relationship. Those same strategies work with kids.
Great teachers invest emotional currency on purpose. They know the smiley face they put on that paper, or the stamp they stick on a child’s hand, or the game they stayed late for is a worthy deposit of emotional currency. That currency can be cashed in to avert a crisis or deescalate a tense situation. Great teachers know that the toughest students may have one person at their school that they’ll talk to when things go from bad to worse, and that one person is me.