By Joshua DeWar
I opened my roster in late July. Surely there was an error. I saw the name but could not believe it.
Determined there was a typographical or system error, I stopped by the school office that hot afternoon and our assistant principal let me know the truth. “No. No mistake. He is coming back. There had been an oversight, some missed paperwork – and for now, Josh, he is yours.”
I was scared. I was livid. I dreaded getting up every day knowing I was one day closer to starting the new school year. This student had, in his previous grade, punched peers and his teachers, and was prone to the use of colorful language. And he was going to be my student this year.
I prepared myself. I got a desk to place next to mine away from the rest of the student work tables. I read his file. I prayed. (And mostly I prayed that the missing paperwork would be found and he would be sent to another school.)
The first week of school came. I held my breath. Nothing.
The first month went by. Nothing happened. In fact, I was having more disciplinary issues with other students.
By Christmas, I had seen this student grow from below grade level in math to becoming an on-grade level pupil. I watched him go from being a nonreader to now at least knowing basic sight words.
Why had he not learned anything in first grade? It was because he spent most of his entire year in the office for his poor behavior. The fact made me cringe as I realized what had happened and how our system had let him down.
How does this story end? Well you may be happy to know that this student has gone on to be one of my favorites. The only thing wrong with him in second grade was how he initially was treated based on his teacher’s preconceived notions of who he was and what he would become.
Bill Daggett, a well-known education reform writer and speaker, published an article last February in International Center for Leadership in Education entitled “How Rapidly Improving Schools and Districts are Taking Control and Putting Students First.” His research showed that low-performing schools are turning around not by so-much focusing on content, but by building relationships with students, parents and community members.
Daggett believes that a school – or, in my case, my classroom – culture trumps strategy every time. Culture, he says, is the most important factor in how an organization faces challenges.
In rapidly improving schools, everyone rallies around a commitment to students first. Educators in these buildings believe they must develop students’ abilities to apply their knowledge and skills to be successful not only in school, but also in the world. It is as much about teaching students to think critically as it is about teaching content.
Every educational institution today is under demands from outside forces – from governments, to businesses and even the media – each with its own notion of how to implement school reform by formula. This approach treats learning like a science. The most successful teachers know that teaching is not a science, but rather an art that must be skillfully applied and developed for the betterment of each student.
By not allowing themselves to become too focused on content reform demands, good teachers, said Daggett, keep their focus on students – getting to know them for who they are so they can shape their teaching accordingly. In doing so, students excel and teachers remain invigorated and have the capacity to manage many conflicting demands.
Daggett also shared what many of us know: good schools and teachers realize that for students to be successful at content, they must be engaged and motivated. As teachers, how can we help engage students if we do not know our students well enough to know what motivates them then? We must learn as much as we can about our pupils in order to create learning environments where students feel comfortable, safe and encouraged in their pursuit of life-long fulfillment.
A focus on content first is, as Daggett noted, a recipe for failure. What good teachers know is that when we focus first on building relationships with students, parents and the school’s surrounding community, methodology and content naturally take care of themselves. Teachers who know and keep students at the center of motivated learning, with appropriate parental and community support, naturally find pedagogical solutions that advance everyone and everything – student, teacher and school alike.
I had coffee with my former principal the other day. As I rambled on about a problem I was having, she looked at me with the wisdom of a 30-plus year education veteran and said simply, “Remember, it’s all about relationships, Josh.”
It is as if the stars had aligned to have both her and the work of Daggett remind me that teaching and leading are all about relationships. It made me think back to my initial notions of this “troubled student.” I had judged him and his capabilities before I built a relationship with him and learned his many abilities. I had dropped the ball. I had forgotten it is, indeed, all about relationships.
Now each time I get a notice that a new student is enrolling, I am reticent to even read his or her paperwork from their former school when it is brought up to my small corner of the world. In fact, most times I let the dossier gather dust on my desk for a few weeks before I crack its manila jacket. I have learned that what matters most is relationships. Everything else falls into place once I know my students for who they are. It’s the first step, after all, in determining where we want to go together.
Joshua DeWar is a native of Janesville, Wis. He has lived in the Louisville area since 2010. DeWar worked in higher education as a student affairs professional and administrator for nine years before moving to the K-5 classroom. He currently teaches 2nd grade at Engelhard Elementary (Jefferson County.) He holds a bachelor’s in French and elementary education from Ripon College, a master’s in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University, a master’s in teaching from the University of Louisville and a doctorate in educational administration and leadership from Marian University. He is serving as the 2016 Kentucky Elementary School Teacher of the Year.