What would happen if we put relationships at the heart of education, before we ever even considered academics?
Radical and inspiring change, that’s for sure. We chatted with two dynamic teachers who are doing just that, Tom Loud and Katie McGhee. Both are first-grade teachers in Tennessee — the fastest improving state on the Nation’s Report Card.
Loud and McGhee are EdFellows for SCORE (State Collaborative on Reforming Education), where they learn about, reflect upon, and inform the policies, practices, and systems that affect student achievement and educator effectiveness.
The Why: To Be THAT Teacher
Tom Loud owns one powerful reason for becoming a teacher: to be the one he never had. Looking back at his experiences as a student, Loud was academically behind for as long as he can remember. “In high school, I think I failed more classes than I passed,” he says.
At the end of his junior year, with a GPA of 1.8, he knew it would be his last year in public school. It was 2000, and that summer, something life-altering happened: He met his future wife, who spoke life into him and believed in his potential. “For the first time, I began thinking I was capable of more than what my high school report cards and teachers were saying.”
Loud grew up where money was a struggle, and paying rent with a steady job wasn’t always a given. After quitting high school, he knew only that he wanted to be well-off, financially. He enrolled in a private school in town for another shot at high school, retaking many classes he had failed and readying himself for medical school.
It wasn’t until an invested teacher asked Loud to consider being a teacher, since she noticed how much he enjoyed working with elementary-aged students.
“I’m happy that I listened, as I now know that teaching isn’t just a job I go to, but it’s really the work I was born for,” he says. “Only by being a teacher have I been able to ensure that no child has ever had the failed educational journey that I did — to be able to be that teacher I never had.”
Flash-forward to 2018, where Loud, after teaching for 10 years, is finally opening up to his district and past students about his story — his why. “I have found that many people, parents in particular, find encouragement and hope for the struggling students they love so much,” he says.
The How: Relationships
Katie McGhee knows successful teaching relies on the connections built inside the classroom. “Relationships should be at the heart of education, at the very core, before we ever consider anything academic,” she says.
She reflects on a quote that always seems to be rolling around in her head — ‘Students who are loved at home come to school to learn, and students who aren’t come to school to be loved’. However, she says it’s not 100 percent accurate: “I think all students come to school to be loved.”
McGhee identifies that all children need to know that they are cared for on a personal level. “For school to matter to students, they need to know that they matter to their teacher,” she says. She verbalizes something we all know to be true: “If a child is uncomfortable at school or feels unliked by his teacher, he won’t ever learn to his fullest potential. But when a child feels loved, respected, and appreciated, she will amaze you with her effort.”
We can all aim to improve the foundational relationships between teacher and students. Here are McGhee’s tips for building and deepening connections.
1. Make a calculated effort to get to know your students on a personal level. “Talk to your students, and really listen to their answers. Know Colin’s favorite animal so that when you help him put his book bag together, you’ll be able to suggest lots of dinosaur books. Let Baylee use the green highlighter during reading groups because you know it’s her favorite color.”
2. Keep a connection checklist. “Keep a list of the children in your class at hand. Each time you have a non-academic conversation with a child, put a check beside his or her name. Make sure that every child has a check. The checklist may sound like added work, but it will help to make sure that every child is at the focus — not just the students with obvious needs or those that are easily commended.”
3. Make students feel good about themselves. “Connecting with your students goes beyond simply knowing their interests. If you know Jerod is easily distracted, make a point to let him know when you notice he’s focusing well. Commend Ava for being so kind to a friend.”
4. Don’t take students’ behavior personally. “There is always a motivator behind poor behavior. If Megan is making poor choices, make an effort to talk to her alone and ask what’s bothering her. Ask her if something is going on that she would like to talk about. Addressing the root of the behavior lets Megan know that you care about her as a person, not just a behavior to correct. I wholeheartedly agree with clinical psychologist Russell Barkley that, ‘The kids that need love the most will ask for it in the most unloving ways.’”
5. Don’t stop there. “Keep talking to your students. They crave and need that interaction. Relationships: The Oxygen of Human Development is a fantastic read! You can also choose several children each day to work to intentionally uplift. It will amaze you how students react to intentional encouragement.”
On the flip side, Loud chimed in with three major missteps that damage student-teacher relationships — and how to overcome them.
Loud’s Disconnection Traps to Avoid
1. Leveling Student Work
“Leveling student work has good intentions, yet often leads to lowering expectations. Keep expectations high for all students and focus on increasing the support offered to the students who need it most.”
2. Failure to recognize and develop students “soft” skills.
“Many people with high academic ability lack wisdom. Let’s focus on academics, but equally important are the hearts, character, and integrity of the students we serve.”
3. Failing to show students how much you care before showing students how much they know.
“Students will forget the lesson plans, activities, and worksheets. But they will never forget how you made them feel!”
Before letting these two game-changers get back to their classrooms, we squeezed two more key pieces of wisdom from them.
Loud encourages teachers to bypass burnout and isolation by purposefully surrounding themselves with solutions-oriented educators and conversation that is positive — in-person and online.
“You have to be on Twitter if you are an educator in 2018. Twitter provides you direct access to some of the brightest minds in education that will fuel and inspire you daily,” he says. “Two of my favorites are my friends @SteeleThoughts and @Fastcrayon.”
Loud is also a big reader, consuming about 50 books a year that are intentionally “encouraging, inspiring, and motivational”. His top picks for teacher encouragement? “Ron Clark’s The Essential 55, Todd Whitaker’s Start Right Now, and Jon Gordon’s Energy Bus.”