We don’t need another mountain, there are mountains and hillsides enough to climb there are oceans and rivers enough to cross, enough to last till the end of time. What the world needs now is love.– Jackie DeShannon
As a writer for onthetown Magazine, Mott Community College English instructor and former high school teacher, I’ve been blessed to teach, write and share stories about wondrous young people. For over 20 years, my career richly acquainted me with a diversity of students from 16 to 60 years old and from every background, a wonderful array of lovable people. Joy was plentiful — but also heartbreak. My course objectives required me to teach students to think and write, but because of what I began to see almost immediately, early on I realized my calling required much more.
For these past two decades, sadly, I have witnessed many students drag not only heavy book bags to English class but also heavy hearts. I witnessed students affected by divorce, parental abandonment or neglect, poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, low expectations, violence, discrimination, depression, attempted suicide and health problems. Unfortunately, these disheartening issues pervade the lives of many students in Genesee County and throughout the U.S.
So in 2008, I published Teach and Reach for Classroom Miracles! Lessons on Teaching With Love to share my ideas with other educators and youth leaders. In Teach and Reach, I share personal stories that reveal a need for more compassion in the classroom and strong personal relationships between teachers, coaches and various youth leaders and the students in their charge.
I begin the book with “The Miracle of Bill” – a bearlike man with a pronounced limp and a deep well of worries. He could be quite difficult. I describe our classroom journey together, one in which I interacted with empathy and built a relationship of trust with him class by class. My story about Bill ends with his quote: “This is one of the few places someone cares about me and praises me. I like it here.” Surprising both me and Bill, he passed my class. Empathy is powerful.
“Children do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Showing compassion and building relationships with students needs to be intentional. I believe educators must fully immerse themselves in understanding child psychology and the academic, social and personal needs of children in general. Educators also should strive to learn about cultural, family, socioeconomic and other differences and their impact on students. They should further endeavor to provide unconditional acceptance (not built on accomplishments), affection, encouragement, guidance, instructive discipline, constructive feedback and criticism of behavior instead of the child. Relationship-building also requires, I believe, that educators become acquainted with individual students to validate their personal worth and respond to their needs most effectively. And those working with students should be educated to observe and respond to various signs that might indicate problems: extreme shyness, withdrawal, aggression, disobedience, sadness, anxiety, decline in academic achievement and depression among others. Responding to these issues and building positive relationships can help students develop self-confidence and self-worth, leading to good mental health and personal success.
In 2011, I began serving on the Lapeer Community Schools Board of Education. It was a time that acquainted me with outstanding administrators and staff but also data-based education. It cemented my belief that intentional empathy and relationship-building are keys to student achievement and happiness. Research bears this out. A meta-analysis of 46 studies confirms the effectiveness of deeper relationships on identity, a sense of belonging and greater academic achievement. James Ford, the North Carolina State Teacher of the Year and the program director for the Public School Forum of North Carolina, says in his online blog, “I can’t overstate this point. In the classroom, relationships are everything…Our first job as teachers is to make sure that we learn our students, that we connect with them on a real level, showing respect for their culture and affirming their worthiness to receive the best education possible.”
As a Lake Fenton High School graduate, I can strongly recall two teachers who stood out – both science teachers. They seemed to base their decision-making on a pedagogy that placed empathy in the center. In Teach and Reach, I wrote, “Think back to that one teacher who really seemed to love you. When I consider all of the many teachers who taught me through elementary school, high school, college and graduate school, there are three teachers who come strongly to mind as truly teaching me with love.” One of them sent a warm, congratulatory letter to my parents when I was in the seventh grade. I still have that note. It’s taped inside a yellow, worn scrapbook – a prized memento that showed me my teacher cared and that I mattered.
In that overwhelming high-school setting, where I was filled with anxiety and self-doubt like many adolescents suffer, his gesture and the words he expressed made a major impact on me. An adult and respected teacher noticed me, singled me out and affirmed me. Who can truly know the lifelong impact of his overall concern for me and his many empathetic gestures at a crucial time of development?
Decades later, who was the first person to show up to my book signing in Fenton? The other high school science teacher! The fact that he remembered me all those years later and took the time to attend my book signing reveals the importance he placed on being present in students’ lives. Theodore Roosevelt observed, “Children do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Whether you are a teacher, paraprofessional, coach, Sunday school teacher, youth minister, Big Brother or Sister, member of the Optimists or other service groups or just someone who wants to affect a person’s life, get involved and give empathy – love. Perhaps the song is right: Young people have enough mountains and hillsides to climb. Enough oceans and rivers to cross. So, maybe what students need is love — compassion and care for the journey. Equipped in such a way, maybe more of today’s youth can reach their personal mountaintops.
Teach and Reach for classroom Miracles! Lessons on Teaching with Love
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