Editor's note: The following guest piece was written by July Eaby, a 4th grade teacher at Capital School District's Booker T. Washington Elementary School and Capital School District’s 2021 Teacher of the Year.
Relationships...they are the key to successful teaching. I believe positive, meaningful relationships based on mutual trust are essential for learning to occur.
In college, we were taught the skills to be an effective teacher, knowledge of content, instructional planning, assessments, etc. I honestly thought that if I mastered all this information, I was golden. Upon graduation, I thought I was 100 percent prepared to teach any child that came my way.
When I welcomed my first class, in 1993, I realized I was prepared with academic and organizational skills but completely unprepared for the social and emotional skills required. Talk about naive, I thought all parents would be kind and involved in their child's education and all children would arrive prepared to learn each day. Unfortunately, that was not reality. Suddenly, I was faced with barriers between me and my students being able to learn; they lacked food, shelter, attention, and far too often, safety. I realized little learning was going to occur until these issues were addressed. I needed to build extremely strong relationships with my students and their families, identify their needs and make sure those needs were met.
Shortly thereafter, I attended a workshop presented by Dr. Michael Ford. He began by stating, "I want to do some role playing. When I walk in the room, greet me." Everyone greeted Dr. Ford with a slight smile and a wave. Then he said, "Now, I want you to greet me as if I was Jesus!" We were shocked but complied. We smiled, joyful smiles, showered him with compliments and warm greetings, and gazed at him lovingly. Then Dr. Ford asked, "Which greeting would make you feel more welcome?" He then said nine words that would change my life forever: "Doesn't every child deserve to be greeted like Jesus?" Just like that, my perspective on teaching changed. I could not wait to see my students and greet them “like Jesus.”
When I began greeting my students in this positive manner, they were happier, more engaged, behavior improved, and more learning occurred. This new approach began to saturate every interaction I had with students and their parents.
Two years ago, as I scanned my new class roster, I saw THAT name, the name that no one else wanted on their roster -- Harold. Harold was one of our most well-known students but not for the best of reasons. Harold's disciplinary reputation was well known. I thought, "Ugh, this is awful. I wish he wasn't." and caught myself. I said to myself, "Oh, Julie, no you don't. This is not who you are. Think positively!"
On the first day, Harold came in, hung up his belongings and came to me and announced, "I am Harold. I am bad and dumb." Oh, I was ready for Harold. I grabbed a report and said, "You claim you are dumb? Well, according to these test scores, you earned two of the highest scores for math and reading!" Harold's little jaw dropped. He was shocked, so I swooped in with another positive whammy. I said, "You also told me that you are bad. Since you walked in silently, put away your belongings, and greeted me, I'd say you are beautifully behaved!"
Harold could not fight his smile. I then gave Harold a genuine and loving greeting, hugged him, and told him I felt blessed he was in our class. From then on, I smothered Harold with love and attention, told him how much I trusted him, and even cheered him on at his basketball games. Sometimes, Harold would stray, but I would ignore the inappropriate behavior and instead reward any appropriate behavior I could observe.
I cried when Harold's classmates awarded him with the Citizenship Award. He asked if I was crying and I explained that my eyes were sweating. When Harold made Honor Roll, he announced he was determined to do it the whole year. My eyes sweated again. By March, Harold was tutoring classmates and leading projects. In June, he reached his goal of being on the Honor Roll the whole year. When he received his certificate, he said, "I bet your eyes are really going to sweat now!"
My experience has taught me that relationships; strong, loving, trusting, genuine relationships must be developed and nurtured between teachers, students, and their families for students to succeed in the classroom. It takes a great deal of time and energy to foster these relationships. However, it is always worth it. The children are always worth it!