Thursday 9 Nov, 2017

Blind Contours of the Classroom: Accepting Uncertainty to Build Student-Teacher Relationships 

I think most teachers who teach in the same school their children attend worry that one day they may end up having their child in class. I remember feeling this way too until my son’s freshman year of high school. That year I taught Nicholas in my Latin American Literature Course. It was a truly tall order for the both of us. Though we were initially uncomfortable with the circumstances, I realize now that I didn’t truly become the teacher I always wanted to be until my son entered my classroom as a student.

With Nicholas in my class, I made a fundamental shift in my thinking as an educator. That semester the content of the course, while always important, became second to the student experience with that content. I began to see my teaching through the eyes of the learner. Among my most treasured memories of high school with Nicholas were our evening dog walks where we would review the readings and classroom discussions we had earlier in the day. Through these conversations, I gathered clearer insights into the student interpretation of the course material than I ever had before. And I started to think that maybe what I wanted to cover in class was less important than what he and his peers actually absorbed from the lessons.

From this experience, there were two lessons that informed my thinking about teaching in the years after my class with Nicholas: the first is the importance of evaluating your teaching by thinking through the eyes of the student, and the second is the value of offering time to students to reflect on their learning outside of class.

These thoughts subsequently raised a new series of questions. What are the ways we can support and promote student reflection? How can we gather honest student feedback on the course content? And perhaps most fundamentally, how can teachers build bonds with their students outside of class so that they can truly understand how their students think?

All three of these seem like almost impossible questions, but they seem to be the ones that teachers grapple with every day. And they all seem to circle the fundamental idea that student-teacher connection outside of class dramatically improves learning inside the classroom.

Navigating the student-teacher relationship is a complicated business and frequently one where the teacher is flying blind. You can never really know the backstory of a student or what makes them tick. But you still have to work to build the bond. So the name of this series is “Blind Contours,” because, like the drawing where you strive to build a subject on paper without knowing what it looks like, a teacher must build bonds with students without really understanding them either. Determining the contours of the teacher-student relationship and discovering success in the classroom is more often than not a blind road with few, if any, signposts signaling the right direction. And yet it’s a timeless activity that students and teachers commit themselves to doing every day.

In short, I’m curious about what moments teachers and students have out in the world that correspond to student success in class. Certainly, most teachers never have their children in class, but what similar experiences- where teachers and students connect and exchange honest feedback- do others remember clearly years after their time in the classroom?

Perhaps a way I can help teachers today is by offering strategies of reflection and stories of connection; moments where for a brief second the blind contours that characterize student-teacher relationships became clearer and true understanding of classroom content was generated. The goal of this series is to collect those moments and distill them into lessons and strategies that other teachers can use in their classrooms and hopefully be encouraged in the moments where they feel they’re blind in their own classroom. We’ve all been there before, but there are tools to help. In the coming weeks, we’ll share a few stories that might help you see when you feel like you’re flying blind in class.

Do you have a story about a time you connected with a student? Email us, tweet us, or message us on Facebook and we may feature you in an upcoming blog!Student and Teacher at mountain top