Building relationships with kids takes time and commitment on both sides of the equation. A solid connection can be encouraged or fortified by a grand event – an open house evening, a “Donuts for Dad” or “Muffins for Mom” celebration, or a campus carnival – but such an event alone cannot create long and meaningful relationships. The daily interactions of teachers with their students, with ongoing discourse between the two, is the only thing that I have found to be most effective in developing and nurturing lasting connections.
Sometimes you just have to listen to each other’s stories of pain and sadness, joy and gladness, and everything in-between.
By the end of the first month of school, I know quite a bit about a child’s life just from the continuous conversation he/she and I have had. Tiny bits of information from numerous simple conversations while lining up, while turning in papers, while waiting for lunch, while passing each other on the sidewalk at the end of the day all help to bring us closer together.
All of that dialogue has informed me of the child’s family situation – parents together or separated, number of brothers and sisters, favorite subject in school, type of pets, names of school friends, fears and worries at home and at school.
I know each student’s favorite type of music, favorite football team, favorite color, favorite candy, favorite brand of shoe. I know a little bit about each child’s interests and each child’s goal for the future. All of these seemingly trivial pieces of information help me to carry on more conversations with each child and help me to further forge the bond between me and them.
By the end of the school year, I will have learned so much more about every child in my class.
And they will have learned a great deal about me.
For a person who was incredibly introverted throughout his school years, I have surprised myself with my ability to now get up in front of students every day and to open up about my own personal life. But I am glad that I now have so many opportunities to tell my stories about my own life.
Telling stories is one of the easiest ways to build a culture of trust and understanding.
Sometimes I feel like a standup comedian perfecting my tales from class to class. Sometimes I get laughs, sometimes I get groans. Almost always, I get complete attention.
My students know that they can get me off task easily. “Tell us a Ramsey story,” they will holler. I usually will oblige them this. Little do they know that I know full well what they are doing and that I have a clear understanding and full control of how much time I have to tell my story and to get the curriculum for the day covered.
Once a story is told, it is rarely forgotten. I’m forever teased about nearly cutting my finger off with a lawn mower, for sitting on my sister’s baby chicken which was hidden under her cover, for breaking the water sprinkler as a Kmart employee and flooding the sporting goods department. My students remember EVERYTHING.
They know that I grew up in their neighborhood. They know that my parents had little money but worked hard. They know how many siblings I have. They know I am married with my own child. They know where I went to college. They know I love to write and have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
They know me like I know them.
A few years ago, I took a day off to have a skin cancer removed from the top of my head. Unfortunately, I had to return to school the next day with a massive bandage stretched across my balding pate.
To deal with the embarrassment, I tackled the morning conversation head on (no pun intended). I had been told by the dermatologist that the cancer had probably been festering for years as a result of excessive exposure to the sun as a kid. So, I used my position as their teacher to turn my experience into an important PSA, hoping to help prevent them from someday going through the same thing. I urged them to use sunscreen and to cover up with a hat.
As we were leaving at the end of the day, one of my boys met me at the door. He whispered, “Are you going to die, Mr. Ramsey?” I felt a lump in my throat and gave him a hug.
“Of course not,” I reassured.
“I’m glad, Mr. Ramsey. You can’t die,” he replied. We started toward the parking lot. Suddenly, the boy spun around and ran back to the classroom.
“Where are you going?” I shouted. But the boy had already charged into the room. A few seconds later, he emerged, holding one of my baseball caps. “You’ve got to take care of yourself, Mr. Ramsey,” he said.
I gave the boy another hug.
With each additional year that I spend in this wonderful profession, I become more and more open about my life when talking to my students. Now, nearing sixty, I find myself sharing more in order to help them make wise choices in their own lives.
Last summer, I finally admitted to myself that I needed to get hearing aids. I had found myself straining to hear students in the back of the room (and from those in the middle as well) and constantly saying, “Huh?”
The doctor had my wife stand behind me about twenty steps where she called out random words from a list. I failed the test miserably, restating the words with only fifty-six percent accuracy. Defeated, I was resigned to the fact that I needed help, and I purchased my personal hearing aids during the first week of summer vacation.
All summer long, I stressed about how I would inform my students. I was more afraid of what they would say in return. I could just imagine all the grief I would get from seventh graders.
On the first day of school, I decided to just be honest and tell them straight out...
As I introduced myself, I talked about how important words are to me and why I write. I shared with the students about my Dad losing the language center of his brain and how that may have been exacerbated by his refusal to get hearing aids. Then I explained that I didn’t want to suffer the same fate, that I couldn’t bear to lose my ability to write, and that my writing is a way to preserve my stories - my history - for my daughter should I ever have my memory erased.
Finally, I pulled one of the devices from my ear and showed it to the class. I explained the great streaming capability of the hearing aids. “I might be listening to my playlist right now, for all you know,” I teased. “And girls in the back,” I continued, “Now I can hear everything you are saying while I’m trying to teach.” They looked at me with wide eyes...
We went on with our day as if my hearing loss was nothing at all.
Today, when a student says, “Huh?” to me, I point to my ear and ask, “Do you need to borrow one of these?”
Hopefully, my revelation about one of my inadequacies has helped my kids to see that I am human and that, despite my disability, I can continue to be successful. Hopefully, I have forewarned them of the possibility of their own hearing loss in the future, of ways that they can help keep it at bay, and of how they can take care of their own mental health.
If anything, they know a little bit more about me…and a little bit more about hearing aids!
About a month into the school year, one of my rowdiest boys stopped talking (an unusual occurrence) and sat staring at me.
“What’s wrong, Ronaldo?” I asked.
He pointed to his ears.
“Yes?” I asked, secretly wishing the silence would last a little longer.
"Can you really hear our voices with those things?" he inquired.
"Of course," I said. "However, the only voice I've been hearing for the past ten minutes has been yours, Ronaldo."
Unfazed, he continued. "So, like, do they record us and play it back for you to hear?"
"Do you think I want to hear everything you say twice?" I exclaimed.
Still curious and undeterred, he asked, "So like, when you talk, do you hear a man's voice telling you what you said?"
"Yeah...it's a man's voice...it's very complicated...very new-age...great technology..., " I dead-panned. "So, let's get back to the lesson, Ronaldo, so I can hear what we're doing today..."
Little conversations. Lots of them. Sometimes laughter. Sometimes tears. Sometimes understanding. Sometimes more curiosity…
But always important to building strong teacher-student relationships.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2018.