I’m going to tell you about the simplest and most transformational act I have taken in my career as an art educator. It started with identifying one of my weaknesses. You see, we recently switched to block schedules. This has been great for art classes. We have time. I almost never feel like I’m in a rush anymore. But it did cause a bit of a problem. I’m naturally bad with names. It takes me a while to figure out who everyone is. Block scheduling only compounded this weakness. After a long weekend, it could have been five days since I had met with a particular group, and my memory of which name belonged to which face would become a haze.
So, I devised a strategy. Since I had a little more time in a block period, and wasn’t so rushed, I would build getting to know my students’ names into my lesson plan. Instead of quickly calling out roll at the start, I would get the students working on something then walk around and take roll face to face. I would look directly in each individuals’ eyes and say their names twice. Now, this would probably be off-putting if I just walked up to every new student, said their name twice and then went on to the next, so I needed something a bit more natural.
I thought about my youthful days as a server in various restaurants. Most places I worked had a prewritten script for greeting new guests. It was designed to make customers feel comfortable and to prevent people like me from saying anything silly. I modified that concept and employed it in my classroom.
“Hello (student name). How are you today?” Engage in brief banter.
“Do you have any questions about what we’re doing?” Answer questions.
“Can I get you anything?” Retrieve or point out any needed supplies.
“Alright (student name) let me know if anything changes.” Move on to the next student.
Now, in a class of thirty plus students, this can take a while. I allot fifteen to thirty minutes. But, that’s usually how long most activities take anyway. And, it had the desired results. I learned the names of my students much quicker by looking them in the eyes and having brief conversations with them. But there was an unexpected side effect. Everything got better, and I mean everything.
I had no idea how transformational this approach to attendance would be. My students quickly gained the impression that I cared about them (which I do). I have had no disciplinary issues this year. Students are more enthusiastic about the assignments. I’ve developed great student-teacher relationships. They trust me. My students aren’t afraid to ask questions. I have demonstrated by my actions that I care and that I am there to help.
As the late Rita Pierson said, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” And that is so true. Healthy relationships are the cornerstone of quality education. But what is also true is that a big reason students don’t like a teacher is because they don’t believe that their teacher likes them. Students who struggle with academics or behavior in school fall into this mentality that their teachers are either annoyed by them or angry with them. They try to hide from their teachers, expecting that any interaction will be negative. By meeting them early on with kindness and demonstrating a willingness to serve, I was able to convince every student that engaging with me wouldn’t be negative or punitive. It would be pleasant and helpful. My students have come to understand that I am there for them. And all it took was for me to include a bit of my experience as a server in my role as a public servant. I’m surprised it took me so long to figure out the connection. I was already wearing the apron.