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We’ve Got The Power

Posted by: | December 9, 2008 | 14 Comments |
Sometimes I think we forget that for many of our students we are a significant adult in their life. For some students we are one of the very few significant adults in their lives. As such, how we respond to our students can have a very big impact on them and their perception of themselves.

For Example:

A number of years ago I had the following experience which really brought this idea home to me. I was teaching Biology 11 and there was a girl in the class that I had known for a few years. She was a sweet girl, but very unsure of herself. I had noticed that she had seemed down for awhile and after class one day I asked her if everything was ok. She smiled and said that things were fine. The next day I got a call from her mom; her daughter had told her about the brief conversation we had. The daughter felt that none of her other teachers even noticed her, and so when I noticed and was concerned about her it really affected her in a positive way. Her mom shared some of the troubles her daughter was having and thanked me again for taking an interest. She said it meant a lot to them both. All this from a brief conversation; just letting another human being know that they matter.
Recently there was a situation with a high school student at my school which also illustrates my point. As a staff we had noticed that this student had changed quite a bit since September; in both his appearance and behaviour. He was also making some poor choices which were affecting more than just his schooling. Then a situation arose that was clearly a cry for help. My principal met with the mother and then with the boy. He did a great job of letting the boy know that: 1) the staff and students had noticed the changes in him; 2) we were all concerned about him; and 3) we all really liked the “old him” better than this new persona. There was more to it than that of course, this is just the Coles notes version. A week after that meeting, the student was back in class and he was so positive. He was working well and interacting with the other students, not shutting them out like before. He was back to his old self and more. His positive energy was contagious and the other students were feeding off it; very cool. I’m just guessing, but I think it probably felt pretty good to know that the staff and students at the school cared about him and liked him. He mattered.

The Take Home Message

Now I’m not saying that we need to go around acting as counselors for all of our students; in fact when students come to me with personal troubles I let them know that I will offer them support, and part of that support is finding a person with the right skills to help them (I’m not trained in that kind of stuff and I definitely do not want to botch things up.) And I know for a good percentage of our students they are doing just fine, thank you very much. But we do need to be aware that for some of our students, just the fact that we notice them and are concerned about them really is a big deal.

What About You?

How do you try to connect with your students? Do you think I’m overplaying this role of teachers as significant adults? I’d love to hear from you!
under: education, Google, teaching


  1. By: cmartin on December 9, 2008 at 7:50 pm      

    For me connecting with my students is the FIRST thing I do. I listen, I watch, I respond and I build trust. My students and parents are free to come to me whenever – I keep an open door policy. From this I have had amazing connections with my students and their families. I am honoured by their trust.

    I do not think you are overplaying the role of teacher as a significant adult. I have a friend who grew up with an alcoholic mother. A teacher is who saved her from heading down the same path. There are many stories just like that one.

    Keep caring and connecting, Claire. The kids need it.

  2. By: Claire Thompson on December 9, 2008 at 7:54 pm      

    @cindy, I agree that making that connection is so important. We can better respect the people in our classroom communities if know a little about them.

    Is there any sort of formal set up you have to make those first connections with students; so that you can connect with them and they with each other?

  3. By: Jeremy on December 9, 2008 at 8:21 pm      

    I think you’re right, and most of us can remember one or two teachers we had who made a difference in our lives by really caring about us. It’s probably often the kids who are hardest to connect with who need it the most.

    Even in a distance learning program, and even for younger students, the “significant adult” role matters. And it’s great for kids to see their teachers outside of school, too, to reinforce those connections. My girls loved seeing Katherine at the Light-Up festival this year.

    I read a book a while back called Hold On to Your Kids, and the author talked about the importance of “collecting” your kids. It was a bit jargony, but he was basically talking about authentic personal connection with children, both as parents and teachers, and how incredibly important that connection is. If the child is not connected to adults in meaningful ways, it creates a vacuum that gets filled with peer interactions that aren’t always the best. I recommend getting it from the library and reading the “how to apply these ideas” chapters at the end if you’re interested. It forced me to change some of my parenting strategies…quite successfully.

  4. By: Claire Thompson on December 9, 2008 at 9:11 pm      

    @Jeremy, I agree that teachers connecting with students is just as important in a DL program as at a regular ‘bricks and mortar’ school. In our DL program we attempt to get most of the high school students to come in for a face to face session every Thursday. Part of that time is to allow for connections to be made; student to student and teacher to student. If we know each other we are more likely to reach out for help, and less likely to be judgmental or dismissive.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. With the holiday coming up, perhaps I can find some time to read it :-)

  5. By: Ken Allan on December 11, 2008 at 12:04 am      

    Kia ora Claire

    I think that keeping the idea in mind that teachers are ‘significant adults’ can help teachers realise what their potential is. I am always aware that my students’ perception of me varies from student to student. This is simply because students are all different, have different needs, different tastes and think differently.

    In the same way, I think it can help parents to keep that idea in mind. Parents can feel down at times. They can also sometimes lose sight of their role as parents. Keeping in mind that they are significant adults in the lives of their children can help them feel better about themselves.

    But one does not want to get too heady about one’s place in the lives of others – even students. I think that teachers especially can think that they have far more influence over what their students think (not just of them) than they actually have.

    Respect for the student goes a long way to fostering a significant relationship that’s likely to lead to the teacher becoming a significant adult in the life of a student.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  6. By: Claire Thompson on December 11, 2008 at 8:10 pm      

    @Ken, thanks for your comments. I like the point you raise about reminding parents that they are significant adults in the lives of their children.

    You also said; “I think that teachers especially can think that they have far more influence over what their students think (not just of them) than they actually have.” I had meant to emphasize that idea more. In my second to last paragraph I said “And I know for a good percentage of our students they are doing just fine, thank you very much.” There are a lot of very together kids with great supports from family and friends; as a teacher you may be not be very significant to them at all.

  7. By: Mr.V on December 11, 2008 at 9:54 pm      

    Claire, I really like this post—it’s a topic that we can quickly lose perspective on in the heat of the moment with tough kids. I have a couple boys in my 6/7 class at the inner city school where I teach for whom I am the significant male figure in their lives at this moment. Its a role that I do not take lightly with them either, though their bag of coping skills is full of tricks that at times puts serious strain on our relationships. I have to arrive each day and allow those kids a clean slate and a chance to start over. I have to remember always with these tough-to-teach kids that my moment to moment behaviour—staying calm, discussing the issue or behaviour and not the person, etc., etc.,—in challenging interpersonal situations is some of the only positive male modeling that they are encountering.

    So I think that we can overestimate our impact with certain kids—probably those who are well attached at home—but we cannot underestimate our impact with certain other kids—a caring teacher, principal, EA, librarian, custodian, etc., etc., can be their life-line. We cannot underestimate the power that schools can have as a socializing tool, to help those kids.

  8. By: Claire Thompson on December 12, 2008 at 8:00 am      

    @Mr.V, thanks for sharing your perspective. Your point about staying calm etc in ‘challenging interpersonal situations’ with students is so important. I think that many of our school leaders do not do enough to really emphasize how important all the adults in a school are to the learning of the students. As you said; “but we cannot underestimate our impact with certain other kids—a caring teacher, principal, EA, librarian, custodian, etc., etc., can be their life-line.”

  9. By: bgilgoff on December 17, 2008 at 3:13 pm      

    A very thoughtful post Claire and an important issue too. I like to think that we should always go through life acting as though we are significant in every life that we cross paths with. After all, we never really know. Sometimes the most off the side comment sticks, whereas those that we make when we are trying or hoping to have an impact are ignored. Being open to others, noticing others, reaching out to others doesn’t require special counselors training. In my opinion, that’s simply being a compassionate person.

    I think in my own interaction with students I don’t worry so much about whether or not I might be significant to anyone in particular, instead I try to make every student significant to me. I try to be the best that I can be at acting with integrity and so being honest, reliable and compassionate. I like Parker J Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach, in this regard. Really we teach who we are and that is clearly the significance we offer.

  10. By: Claire Thompson on December 18, 2008 at 6:17 pm      

    @bgilgoff, you said,
    “I like to think that we should always go through life acting as though we are significant in every life that we cross paths with.” Words to live by!

  11. By: sarahf09 on December 22, 2008 at 2:35 pm      

    Hello Claire,
    I am no teacher, but I am a middle school student. In the past, I’ve had a few good teachers, a few bad, but one superb one. As insecure as I was, I was able to connect with him so perfectly like two puzzle pieces for we had a little piece between us called trust. After talking to him about some rocky parts of my life path he soon became not only a teacher, but a friend. Knowing that someone actually does care about you can brighten up a dull day, like you said.

    Some students have more piled on their plate then others, and that is what can effect their school attitude. One child might be having some home or out of school problems while another might just be living the daily life of being a kid. For any kid, you need to show the positive in them. If someone is constantly getting the negative aspects thrown at their face they will soon start to believe everything they do is not good enough or they are a failure, which you and i know that there is always something good in everyone.

  12. By: Claire Thompson on December 26, 2008 at 8:49 pm      

    @sarahf09 thanks for sharing your experience; it is great to get a student’s perspective. You said, “Some students have more piled on their plate then others, and that is what can effect their school attitude.” I think this is true in a lot of situations with students and others.

  13. By: Paul Bogush on January 4, 2009 at 6:26 pm      

    I think I answered you question a couple of weeks ago in a post!


    @bgilgoff Parker Palmers book lifted me up at a time in which I thought I was burnt out teaching in a most depressing school.

  14. By: Claire Thompson on January 4, 2009 at 9:23 pm      

    Paul, thanks for the link to your post. I know a lot of teachers who would identify with being parents to their students. It also looks like I’m going to have to add Parker Palmer’s book to my ‘to read’ list. Dang, that list is getting longer every day!