Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Four Most Important Words in Teaching

My co-blogger, John, often mentions that a crucial part of his practice is standing at the door, greeting students as they come in.  Although this practice started as a way to keep order in the halls, for him it's persisted because it gives him an opportunity to check in with students individually.  I don't have anything like that kind of discipline, but I have to agree that the 3-5 second "touch" is incredibly important, wherever and however you make it happen.  So my candidate for the four most important words is "How are you doing?"

As a math teacher, I don't "get" the opportunity to talk with my students about their personal lives; I have to make that opportunity.  But I think that the kids who most need to talk are often the most fearful of actually opening up; the biggest secrets are just below the surface.  "How are you doing?" is a low-stakes way of saying "I'm interested, and if you want to talk, we can."  When a student has already opened up to me, "how are you doing?" is really a statement: "I know it's been rough, and I'm concerned."  It doesn't demand an extended exchange.  "Not so great thanks" -- "I'm sorry; find me at lunch if you want to talk" is almost always as long as it gets: five to ten seconds.

It's easy to misjudge the amount of effort needed to care for our students' social and emotional health on the basis of that very small number of students whose drama is like a riptide, dragging in friend after friend and teacher after teacher.  But most students aren't like that.  And I find that especially when a student is in crisis, or just coming out of one, regularly asking "How are you doing?" makes a huge impact--probably more than an hour-long "session" would, at least with this nonskilled practitioner.

This impact was demonstrated to me by an unusual coincidence during this last week of school.  I said goodbye to two boys who had been going through rough times this year (one just for the summer, one who is graduating); both were practically in tears.  One wrote in my yearbook that my checking in with him had made it possible for him to finish school and graduate, and he meant it.  Literally--I promise you--no conversation with this student had lasted more than five minutes.  Then our graduation speaker was an alum who, five years ago, had told his entire class and their parents (he was the graduation speaker at his own graduation, too) that my "How are you?"'s had been a lifeline during difficult times.  (And again, at the time, I was bowled over:  none of these conversations lasted more than 3 minutes, and only a few were even half that long.)

When I first started teaching, I envisioned long, soulful one-on-ones with students about all the bumps and pitfalls of adolescence, of which I'd had my own share.  But I've come to realize that most students don't want those conversations most of the time, and that they can't be forced.  Two of my mentors, at Andover, pointed me in the right direction.  Craig Thorn (beloved house counselor and English department chair) told me his secret the day I arrived: just be around, in their rooms or wherever, so that they see you and know you and talk around you.  Doug Kuhlmann, who was the math department chair, said something like this: when you ask a student a personal question, you need to be aware of your own stake in the answer.  What he meant, roughly, was that when you ask a student a personal question, you need to be aware of your own reasons:  are you asking because talking will help the student, or for the emotional buzz of reinforcing your relationship with the student, or to validate your own self-image as "the teacher who cares." It's easy, he warned, to think of yourself as asking for the student's benefit, when really it's about you, which is problematic:  as an authority figure, you're in a position to demand a response, even when you shouldn't. 

"How are you doing?" largely avoids this pitfall: asked in the hallway, or when you're checking in homework, or outside the lunchroom, it doesn't demand much, if anything, of the student.  Just saying "Okay" is enough--in fact, it's standard protocol.  The first couple of times, I might follow up with "Really?  Doing okay?" -- to indicate that I am really asking, not just following the script.  But then it's up to the student.  So "How are you doing?" is empowering, not disempowering: it says "Remember, I'm here if you need me, but I'm not going to push it if you don't."  And it's a "touch" I can make in front of other students, who may or may not know the backstory.

With 140 students per teacher, it's easy to fret about how little we can do.  But what I take away is that it only takes a little.  The key is -- to circle back to John -- to keep asking, to make it a regular routine.  The kids who thank me for it later remember this:  I asked them every time.  And that regularity--and the care behind it--mean more than you'd expect.


  1. This is superbly focused reflection. I especially love the call to be sure that you are aware of your reasons when asking personal questions of a student. Maintaining boundaries while fostering relationships with teenagers is a tough (and hugely important) thing - I spend a lot of time talking through the best way to handle individual situations with trusted colleagues. Your post helped me think through a few things in more general terms. Thanks.

  2. I read this a month ago, and had the same thoughts as sonatamathematique did. Children and teenagers need regular relationships in their lives, but there needs to be some separation between teacher and students, and this is the way to give them what they need without falling over the line.

    It was only when I got home last night that I realized I had just met you, the teacher who wrote this reflection, yesterday.

    Thank you!