To build a community, you need to build relationships, to build relationships you need trust. I have been thinking more consciously about building trust lately. One of my most challenging tasks as a classroom teacher is earning the trust of my new students at the beginning of the school year. Some students are easy to win over, for others it takes work.
One of my most challenging students, who I will call “Will”, came to me from a new school at the beginning of the year. From the beginning, when Will had any type of altercation with other students or thought he was in trouble, he would refuse to talk. During the first week, he hit another student. When we tried to discuss what had happened, he refused to say anything. Not one word. I said I would give him some time to cool off if he needed and we would come back to it. I waited 30 minutes, he wasn’t ready. I waited another 30 minutes, still wasn’t ready. Again, I waited another 30 minutes…still not ready. This cycle continued for a few hours. I didn’t know what to do, this had never happened before. I thought I couldn’t just let this student think he could hit someone and not deal with the situation. I gave him time until the next day to talk. Besides, I needed to call home and get some insight into this student from his parents. After talking with one of his parents, they let me know that he often did this. In fact, in his old school if he thought he was in trouble he would run, he would bolt and leave the school building. Thankfully, he never ran on me, but I could not get him to talk. The next morning when he came to class, he again refused to discuss what had happened the day before. I explained to him that in my class when issues arise, they must be dealt with. He wasn’t in trouble, but he and that student need to talk about what happened and figure out how they could move on. He would not be able to come back to class until this discussion happened. His family supported me and I let him know that I was working with his parents and they were prepared to have him stay after school to talk if need be. After an hour or so he eventually came around and talked with me and the other student. As the year went on his refusals to talk got shorter and shorter. His family and I kept in close contact and Will was made aware of this by both parties. We wanted him to know we were on the same page. I must say I was grateful that they were supportive of me and trusted me enough to work with me throughout the year.
Part way through the year we had another bump in the road. Will was reading books that were very difficult for him to decode. He was pretending to read during our daily silent reading time. Privately, I suggested to him that he try reading some easier books. He refused. At one point I told him that he needed to read some lower levels during the regular reading time, but that during free reading he could read whatever he wanted. He stopped reading. This went on for a week or so. He was now refusing to read. The following week, while at a UDL session with Jennifer Katz on literacy, I had a light bulb moment. Jennifer suggested letting kids choose their books, even if they were too easy or too difficult. Brilliant idea! I had been trained that kids need to read at their “just right level” but this was not working for Will. The next day, I went back to school and apologized to Will. I let him know that I struggled to read when I was in school. I was sorry for making him not want read. I wanted him to just enjoy reading and that he should pick whatever book he would like from now on. Will fought it a bit, but eventually when I wasn’t hastling him, he went back to reading.
Will and I had a bumpy year, but for the most part it was good. It was never a warm and fuzzy relationship. He was never the kid that wanted a hug at the end of the day. However, on the last day of school, when I hugged them all goodbye, one by one, he reluctantly gave me a hug as he left. I had worked so hard to get to know Will that year. I kept in close contact with his family through phone calls and extra meetings. I finished that year feeling exhausted and not sure I made a difference with Will. I wasn’t sure that I really connected with Will. After I left Will’s school to move to another, whenever I would go by his school and he saw me, he made a point to come get his hug. Every time! Later on, I got a call from the school that a student left something there for me. When I went to the school and opened up the envelope, I found that Will left me his picture. I guess he didn’t want me to forget him. I must have earned his trust after all.
As I took on a new role this year working with teachers across our district, I have had to build many new relationships. Like Will, some of those relationships take time. Relationships with staff that are already formed are easier to pick up and start working. While staff that I am just getting to know, need more time. Just like the students they need to feel that they can trust me, before they can open up. That trust is earned by getting to know them. Not just knowing about work related things but on a personal level too. Just checking in with how they are doing as people before the work begins goes a long way. When I have a booking with a teacher, I take time to just check in and see how they are doing first. If something is going on at home or at work, many times they need to get that out first. As I continue to grow and learn as a teacher, I take those lessons Will and other students like him, taught me.