Meeting students on their own turf

Last week I spent an 11-hour day at school. It wasn’t Open House or Parent Teacher Conferences, but was done of my own free will. I worked my normal 7:30 – 3, graded some papers between 3 and 4, went down to to watch a varsity softball game from 4-4:30, caught the tail end of a jv volleyball match from 4:30 – 5, and then watched a varsity volleyball match from 5 – 6:15. I tried to prep my wife ahead of time that I would be home later than normal, but it was something I felt I had to do.

While I love running my own extra curriculars and have stayed at school much later on many occasions for my own activities, I try to make it a point to attend my students’ after school events. I try to convince myself that it is worth my time even more if I bring the camera out there to get a few extra photos for the newspaper or yearbook, but I’m not really there for photos. I make sure that I go to these events to celebrate my students when they are on their own turf and not mine.

I try to make my classroom as welcoming as possible, but I know that in any given class there are probably at least 50% of my students who don’t want to be there. Maybe they don’t like English or Journalism, maybe they are just having a bad day that day, or maybe they just moved away from all of their friends to a new school and don’t want to be in our building. I ask them to forget all of those things for the 50 minutes I see them (or 90 minutes on block days) and try to meet me in the middle on my own turf. Most of them will never love Vonnegut the way I do, or care so much about getting a story up on our website in timely fashion, but they seem to humor me and hopefully are learning some life skills along the way.

When I go to after-school activities I get to see my students in their own happy place. Over half of the softball team has been in one of my classes at some point, and I’ve either taught or coached (in another sport) a majority of the volleyball players. I thoroughly enjoy seeing them thrive in an area that I know they love. I also love seeing students who may not have had the best relationships with me in class. When they see me at their game it completely changes whatever relationship we had before the game. They know I care enough to spend my own time to watch them and their teammates play, and it makes them much more willing to work with me on something they may not love as much as I do.

Going to events like this is nothing new for me. Whenever I am available, I try to make it to any event that a student invites me to attend.   Whether it is a graduation party, watching our school plays and musicals, or even going to a business where one of my students is working, I’m happy to oblige. However, there are a few instances that come to mind where I had to get out of my comfort zone to meet a student in theirs, and those really stand out to me.

The first event happened in my first year at my current school. I had a student transfer in to my class mid semester. We formed a fairly good relationship in class, and one day towards the end of the school year she plopped a flyer on my desk. She was going to be performing at a Renaissance Faire and she wanted to know if I could go. I told her I’d try, but that I wasn’t sure. I’m sure she thought that meant that I would be blowing her off, but I made the decision to go. My wife and I drove over to the event that day and just looked at each other when we got out of the car in the parking lot. This was not an event that either one of us would have chosen as a weekend date, but there we were, trudging through the crowd, enjoying the fair, and trying to find my student. When we found her she was overjoyed that I had shown up, and she tried to send me to all the people that she knew so that we could get a special experience. We didn’t need the VIP experience, but it was pretty obvious to me how much it meant for her that I just showed up.

My other example took me to a concert. I was working as a TA in a middle school when I first got into the education profession. One of the students I had was a pretty headstrong young man who had butted heads with me the first time we met. We were slowly building some trust in our relationship when he told me that he was part of a music school (Like the movie School of Rock) and that he would be performing at a daytime concert. I knew some of his other teachers were planning to go, so again I dragged my wife (she ends up going to a lot of random places because of my job) and we made our way over. It was about what you would expect of middle school rock stars, but as this young man was playing you could tell he was scanning the crowd for familiar faces. His face lit up when he saw me and the other teachers, and he really started to try to jam on the guitar. I don’t remember the song because it has been so long, but at one point he played what I would call “headbanger music” (if you can’t tell, that’s not my musical taste). The crowd wasn’t getting into it the way he had hoped, so I started bobbing my head up and down and throwing my fist in the air. Let’s just say, our in-school relationship was almost perfect after that day.

I know that not all teachers have the luxury of time after working hours to attend all of these things, but I’ve found that even one or two appearances outside of the classroom helps so much when you get back to your classroom. Very few students are going to love our subject areas as much as we do, so meeting them in their happy place can make ours an even better place.

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