Teach the Student, Recognize the Individual

A powerful way to encourage students is through authentic recognition

A powerful way to encourage students is through authentic recognition created by a positive message, specific terms, and defining characteristics.

I first started teaching in 2001.  The first class I stood in front of already had two teachers who came and went and according to my student-teaching advisor, the class was more than a handful.  I chuckle at that memory, I had a Bachelor’s in History, a residency teaching certificate, and I was teaching 7th and 8th grade English and Social Studies, I was over my head and I knew it.

I kept in touch with a couple students from that class.  Sally (a fake name) reached out to me when I was in the depth of my struggle with alcohol to offer me help.  At that time, there was nothing anyone could do, but, as a part of my research into effective teaching and learning – I wanted to know more about what made her tick.

I ran into her recently by accident and after some small talk, I asked her the question that I’d been wondering.  What motivated her to feel secure in her own skin and how can teachers use her journey to help shape their orientation in the classroom? She touched her heart and said, you got to have heart.  I wanted to say, I know you have heart, but she clarified, “You know why we didn’t give you a hard time? Because you recognized we were as people like our interests, struggles, and home lives.”

It made me remember a teacher that reached me in a similar manner.  I was in second grade in the small community of Cle Elum, Washington.  My mother, brother, and I were new to town and at the beginning of the year, I had no friends.  My teacher, Mrs. Bonnie Christian seemed to understand the concept of social-emotional learning before it was an identifiable theory.  I felt that she wanted me to learn that I could be okay.

Mrs. Christian did nothing to stick out in my mind until she unintentionally insulted me.  She asked the class what we did over a holiday, I think Thanksgiving, but maybe Christmas.  Most of my peers explained that they had turkey, ham, and the usual fixings.  When it was my turn, I explained how I went to my grandparent’s house and ate goat.  Mrs. Christian responded to me, you did not eat goat.  I was sure that we ate goat but did not try to change her mind.

She then asked my mom about my imagination, my mom had to explain that although she is white, my father is of Mexican-descent and we did eat goat.  I was too young to understand that this could be perceived as an insult, but old enough to know that I wasn’t lying.  A few days later, Mrs. Christian found some time to talk to the class because she wanted to explain that she was wrong about what I had said and that she would like to apologize to me.  Imagine that, I was in second grade and the teacher was apologizing to me!  Maybe my behavior changed, perhaps she just felt bad, but at that moment, I had a new respect for that teacher.  Mrs. Christian was the first teacher I truly trusted based solely on that apology.

I’ve had some great teachers in my life, far too many to name in this blog, but Mrs. Christian was my very first favorite-teacher.  Not because I became a great speller or because I read The Boxcar Children in her class.  Not because she made a newcomer feel welcome or that she reinforced my developing mathematical skills.  Mrs. Christian was my favorite because she treated me as more than a student, as Sally reminded me, she saw the human in me.

Mrs. Christian had a theme that year, she taught us about common sense.

Every time we were asked to do a task, she asked us to use our common sense.  At the end of the day, when the room was not clean, she would ask us to use our common sense of what we needed to do before we left.  When she returned from a day away from class, she would either praise us for using our common sense when a substitute was in class or warn us against not using common sense. The theme was simple enough that it probably took little time to plan, pliable enough to be used every day, and with such an impact that I remember it to this day.

Outside of my family, it was Mrs. Christian who first made me feel that achieving for myself was worth my effort.  It was in her class that I first ran for and won a leadership position.  I did become a great speller and became more appreciative of how academic achievement opened certain doors for me.

The year after I was in Mrs. Christian’s class, I moved to a new community but the skills she helped me develop went with me.  Six years after I was in Mrs. Christian’s class, I moved to a third community, my knowledge and skills followed me there too.  I feel that Mrs. Christian was the first teacher who recognized my individuality and helped me realize that my greatest asset is my own mind.

Mrs. Christian and educators like her are the people who inspired me to create My Mind My Power.