by Sneha Rawlani (Counselor, The Gateway School of Mumbai)
My scrawny, bespectacled and adorable 8 year-old student has put his head down on the table and refuses to look up at the board. Why isn’t he listening to me?
I walk over to him. As I bend down to his level, I realize that the board now looks large and demanding, and far, far away. My detailed writing on the board is just a bunch of overwhelming scribbles from back here.
I move him to the front. I write less and draw more on the board. Seconds pass. He finally looks up, adjusts his glasses and considers the situation. I see him almost retreating back into his rebellious silence, but then he notices what I’ve drawn. His eyes widen, and I see his small and eager hand shoot up while he struggles to keep from blurting out whatever epiphanic thought he’s had.
I sigh with relief! I thought that class was going to go really wrong, really fast. How amazing that all it took was for me to pause and notice what it was like for him. Experiences such as this have helped me realize the power of putting myself in the child’s shoes - seeing, hearing, thinking and feeling from their point of view.
It’s easy to think of students as brains we need to fuel, but they are first and foremost people, each one unique. In my situation, I was reminded that a child who struggles with visual deficiencies and poor sleep will bring that to the table, and that providing visual displays on the board would help him. This practice of perspective-taking becomes all the more crucial when faced with challenging behaviour. Unless we appreciate what a child is experiencing and feeling in that moment, we cannot give them what they need to be ready to learn. And to appreciate their unique experience of a situation, I need to know who my students are as individuals. What do they like, what do they hate, what motivates them, what pains them? Another challenge for me personally, was that it didn’t feel like my place to correct and demand better of students. But establishing that connection and being perceptive of what they endured in a given situation, allowed me to occupy a space of vulnerability and reflection with them. In the case of Raj, acknowledging his tiredness did half the job. The second part to that was reaching a compromise, a give-and-take - I changed what I was doing, and he gave me what I asked for - and this exchange worked because it was me who was asking.
Not only does knowing the child as a whole person support teaching and classroom management, but it allows us to leave our students with something else - the feeling of having someone in their corner. Feeling like they matter. Experiencing connection. I’ve come to realize that this connection is also that extra spark that, at least for me, makes what I do so much more interesting and gratifying.
I think of connecting with the students as setting the stage. Once I have that and I tune into that, everybody feels heard and noticed. They have what they need and don’t need to ask for it in an indirect and disruptive way. Then comes the imparting of knowledge, the skill-building – the meat of it. Herein too, we continually think from the perspective of our students so as to adapt how we are teaching. “Is English the child’s second language?”, “Are they below grade level?”, “Have they been exposed to this content before?”, “Is this familiar given their socio-economic background?”, “What examples will help them connect to this?”. We go through this extensive list of questions when planning, but more demandingly, also whilst in the classroom. I chose to draw instead of write on the board because I remembered that Raj is an ESL learner. That was something I already knew about him, but the trick was to use the information I had and connect with him in that moment. We can all probably recall a time when we’ve rolled our eyes and exclaimed in exasperation, “Use your words, I’m not a mind-reader!”. As it turns out, teachers are honing this impossible skill after all!
In a nutshell, my big realization was that putting myself in my students’ shoes was not only a game-changer, but sort of a prerequisite to teaching. If we don’t establish a connection before entering the classroom, getting kids to listen to us is an uphill battle. Once in the classroom, seeing things from the perspective of the learner tells us how best to elicit learning. And when it comes to the tricky business of disciplining, it’s never easy but at least we can rest assured that the tension will dissipate eventually, and our relationship will remain intact. James Corner hit home when he said that, “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship”. Connection is the invisible string that holds everything together.
Read more about how and why to develop a connection with your students, here: