Most teachers I know have moments of anxiety during the first weeks of school. That’s partly because of the sheer volume of things that need to be done to set yourself up for success and get systems in place.
But I think much of the stress comes from feeling like you have to prove yourself all over again with a brand new group of kids and families. Just two short months ago, you stood in front of a class or classes of kids who knew you. They knew what to expect, you had a rapport, and if you were having a bad day or you were a little off, or you made a mistake … it was okay. The parents knew what to expect from you and you understood the dynamics in your school. Things were settled.
And now, you need to start all over, and you might be worried about whether parents are going to respect you, your decision making, and your policies. There have likely been some changes in personnel at your school and you may have to prove your expertise or defend your teaching philosophy to a new administrator or colleagues, too. And of course, you’ve got to get a rapport established with a new group of kids.
You might be wondering … Will they listen to you? Will they take you seriously? How will they respond when you need to correct them or push their thinking?
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With everything that’s unfamiliar and out of your control at the start of the school year, it’s natural to try to control as many things as possible. Many of us do this by focusing on strict rules about what kids can and can’t do, and planning every procedure and activity down to the minute and not allowing for any kind of diversion. You might find yourself being overly harsh because you want to make sure the kids know that you mean business. Or the opposite might be true, and you bend over backward to try to make yourself likable and relatable to kids.
Here’s a little trick to help you change your perspective and get into a better headspace:
Shift your focus from getting kids to know, like, and respect you to getting to know, like, and respect your kids.
Here’s how that works, and how I learned to put this into practice.
You’ve probably heard that people’s number one fear, even greater than the fear of death, is a fear of public speaking. The idea of standing up in front of a group of your peers is incredibly intimidating. That need to prove yourself and win people over for me was always greatly amplified when I moved from speaking to eight-year-olds to speaking in front of teachers.
I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before giving a keynote or doing a workshop, because I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would be perceived. I’d worry, “What if they think I’m boring? What if this is all stuff they already know? What if this is all stuff they’re not interested in? What if they’d rather be basically anywhere else besides listening to me?”
At one point in desperation, I remember thinking to myself: “I guess I can’t control what they think of me and if they like me. Some of them just won’t, no matter what. But a lot of them will really like me. If I can find just one person who looks like they’re really engaged and really excited to be listening to me, I think I can get through it.”
I was no longer hoping to be the World’s Best Presenter Who Blows Everyone Away With Her Amazing Insights and Incomparable Delivery Style. I was just going to go in there, do my best, and look for the person in the room that I was really helping.
I shifted my focus from whether others would like and respect me to getting to know, like, and respect others. And to my amazement, I felt instantly less stressed.
I realized in that moment that it wasn’t about me at all. It was about serving them. And the more I thought about their needs and being in tune with them, the less I worried about whether my outfit projected the right message or whether they’d laugh at my jokes.
From that day forward now, every time I speak in front of a group, I practice staying focused on how I can meet needs and make connections. And I say practice staying focused because this is not something that comes naturally to me: My nature is to be introverted and self-conscious and compare myself to others. But I practice shifting my perspective here.
Before I enter the room, I tell myself: “One person in this room is going to have their entire life changed as a result of our connection. Some aspect of their life will never be the same as a result of some insight I gave them or some new belief or skill I taught them. I am going to find that person and build that connection with them, and let the energy that comes from that interaction give me the motivation to keep reaching for the others and trying to help them have that same experience, too.”
You can use this exact same process in your classroom. At least one student is going to look up to you, admire you, and reflect back on your work with gratitude forever. Find the person in your classroom who has that potential, who smiles back at you and laughs at your jokes and looks engaged when you’re talking. When you get flustered, look back to that person. That will give you the courage to keep working with the others who are less enthusiastic or harder to win over.
Here’s the really awesome part about this: There’s almost always more than one person whose life is going to be forever changed for the better, by you. If you teach elementary school, that might even be true for the majority of your students who will adore you, love learning with you, and spending time with you.
But it’s not about being liked, or being popular, and it’s not about being their friend. That’s a lovely side result but not the end goal. The goal is about meeting other people’s needs. As the leader of the classroom, you are there to focus on what kids need and empower them. Always stay focused on that rather than trying to make sure they like you or even respect you.
Instead of wondering, “Why don’t the kids love my class? Why is it taking so long to build relationships? Why don’t they respect me?” ask yourself, “How can I increase the quality of a student’s life today?” This shifts your focus away from how you are perceived and onto how you can take action to make a positive impact.
It keeps you from worrying about what results you think you “should” be getting and the type of opinion students have of you, and instead, keeps you focused on how you can meet students’ needs.
This is the heart of being an effective teacher. It’s not about the gimmicks, or putting on an amazing show for kids. It’s also not about entertaining them or making your class their favorite. It’s not about YOU at all.
I remember author Glennon Doyle sharing an experience on her social media a long time ago that really stuck with me. She took her kids to the pet store to let them play with the kittens and try to figure out which one they wanted. One of the kittens ran straight over to her daughter and started purring and playing with her. That kitten didn’t leave her side the entire time they were there, and her daughter was really clear when she said, “Mom I like this one.”
Glennon asked, “What makes you like that kitten so much?”
And her daughter looked at her, thought for a second, and said, “I don’t know. I guess I like her because she liked me first.”
Isn’t that exactly how bonds with other people start? When someone takes a real interest in me and asks me questions to get to know me better, and seems genuinely curious about who I am and what I’m like, I instantly find myself liking that person. There’s just something in our human nature that draws us back to others who make us feel validated.
Certainly, you can go to great lengths this school year to impress your kids. You can do elaborate room transformations and spend hours creating lessons that will lure them in. But I think the main reason that those techniques work is because of the rapport and the relationship the teacher already established with the kids.
That little kitten who attached herself to Glennon’s daughter didn’t do anything special. She didn’t perform any tricks or try to stand out from the other kittens. She just showed a genuine affection and care for the person right in front of her, and that effort and focused attention are what allowed them to bond.
It’s a simple illustration of how powerful our attention to others can be. When you start feeling pressure to impress your kids or their parents, your colleagues, administration, or other teachers online, I encourage you to shift from trying to get them to like and respect you, and focus on getting to know, like, and respect them.
It’s about placing your focus on actual human beings. Sometimes, I see concepts like culturally responsive teaching reduced to generalizations about kids or stereotypes about their demographics. But you know what real culturally responsive teaching is? Knowing the actual kids in your classroom: focusing on them and their interests and amplifying what they bring to the table. It’s about dropping the deficit mindset where you focus on all the things that the kids seem to be lacking, in terms of school culture values, and looking at what they bring to the table instead. It’s about seeing your students as real people with interests, needs, and problems that are worth getting to know.
So each time during the school year that you start to feel like you’re not enough or you’re not doing enough, or any time you worry that you won’t be respected as a teacher, remember that taking a genuine interest in others is the most powerful way to bond.
Focus on helping kids and being in tune with THEIR needs, rather than trying to figure out what they think about you and making them like you. And when you make this practice a habit, you’ll find yourself not only less stressed about your relationships with students, but you’ll actually be building better relationships that are centered on what kids need from you.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
This episode was sponsored by Really Good Stuff. What are the top 10 challenges that teachers face in the classroom? Really Good Stuff released the findings of their National Poll with over 700 participants. Visit reallygoodstuff.com/solutions to find the results, plus solutions to these challenges, teacher tips, resources, and innovative products designed to save you time. Use promo code RGSTRUTH10 for 10% off of your Really Good Stuff order (expires 12/31/18.)