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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

PreK Secret to Success: Give me relationship



"Ugh... give me ball," the cromagnon man with waist length black hair, partial toga, and a big big red plastic baseball bat said at the door of my classroom.  Then he walked away.

It took a moment.  First, I had to figure out who it was - he was so DIFFERENT.  Who was he?  Then, it dawned on me.  It was the senior's last week this week and it was one of them, I'll call him c-man.

When C-man was in 10th grade, he was part of the first Flat Classroom class and we were in on a Saturday.  The learning curve for all of us was HUGE and we were pushing Windows Movie Maker to the max (we've since moved to Pinnacle Studio Ultimate Version 12.)  Some of the kids were tossing a hand sized yellow nerf and he was tired and ready to go home - he looked at them and said, "Give me ball."  It came out jilted and monotone like a caveman, probably because he was so unbelievably tired.

Well, it struck me as funny. It sounded like a caveman and so, I like to give nicknames, and called him "caveman" and laughed and laughed along with the kids. Later, he said, "I don't like the nickname..." and so, I had dropped it. Every once in a while, we joked about "give me ball" but that was that.

Cman was about to graduate and it was coming full circle. He was getting the "last laugh." It was his way of saying "bye."  Once it dawned on me, like a dawn in a rainstorm -- really really slowly - I started laughing.  My ninth graders didn't have a clue - all they knew was that Mrs. Davis was in tears.  Cman had pulled it right back on me.

After I told them, they laughed - but they know.  They know this... that part of what happens in my classroom is this intense learning but another part of what comes through intense learning is also a relationship.  I love my students... at least once a day there is at least once incident of hilarious, sidesplitting laughter, doubled over laughter - often involving tears. (Like another one I wrote about recently.)  It is just part of being in my classroom.

Research Says Relationship is Key to PreK Program
Well, today as I was reading a great book The Obama Education Plan: An Education Week Guide (a book I highly recommend for ALL educators public or private - US or not as really it is mostly reprinted research studies relating to the plan - items related to the Obama plan but not part of it.)  The beginning chapters focus on what the research says about effective Pre-K programs. (Did you know preschool programs have the highest return on investment with a humongous $6.02 for every $1 spent compared to $2.47 for small classes and $3.07 for Wic, and nothing for full care kindergarten? - page 9.)

In the article "Teacher-Pupil Link Crucial to Pre-K Success," by Linda Jackson from May 21, 2008, she says:

"... academic and language skills were stronger when children received greater instructional support, such as feedback on their ideas and encouragement to think in more complex ways.  And children's social skills were more advanced when teachers showed more positive emotions and were sensitive to children's needs." (p13)

The whole article is fascinating as it points out that

"the quality of the relationship between preschool teachers and their pupils might be more imprtant to children's learning than such factors as class size and teacher credentials, a new study suggests." (p13)
This study was from the National Institute for Early Education Research based at Rutgers University. So, how did they measure relationship?  Well, the study looked at 9 minimum standards of quality from organizations such as National Association for Education of Young Children (note that professional development and state monitoring were NOT included.)  It also looked at the classroom environment and student/teacher relationship using an instrument from Robert C. Pianta, dean of education at the University of Virginia.  (This was in the May/June issue of Child Development.)  This rating system is called CLASS, the Classroom Assessment Scoring system which looks at: instructional support, emotional climate, and classroom organization.

So, in summation the article makes two points:
  • instructional and emotional support raises achievement among at risk students
  • When "teachers are warm, sensitive, and positive, the children performed at levels almost identical to those of children without a history of behavior problems."
As a teacher, particularly one who loves my students (and admits it although the climate in education is not to express such things), this student/ teacher relationship question of mine has always been a question.  When students transfer in to school, I like to get an idea of what they have learned and how they've done.  There are some great other technology teachers in the area, and so I always ask students "who was your teacher?"

Invariably, students who transfer in from other schools will tell me things like: "I don't remember their names."  The first time this happened, I was so shocked and said:

"You don't remember the name of any of your teachers? Just one?"

The answer:

"They don't know mine... I don't know theirs!"

You know, because of the few (usually novice) teachers who decide to jump in bed with a student - many schools don't allow their teachers to touch students or see them outside of school (unless they run into each other at church.)  Now, I don't hang out with my students - I do see them at church and if they have a death in the family - you'd better believe I'm going to be their hugging their neck at their house or the funeral home.

An important element of teaching is relationship.  They know that I will push them to know more and be more and I will also brag on them because I truly believe they are the best -- I don't have to fake it - I believe it.

It is so hard for research studies to isolate the effect of technology because it is so unbelievably hard to isolate for the effect of the teacher. Often, technology may actually improve a classroom due to the research study because of the feeling of the classroom and teacher because they have been paid attention to -- they are important.  Attitude, emotion, relationship -- these are things that are important in teaching.

Perhaps this is why often (not always but often) teachers who use these tools like facebook, cell phone texting, and the like are able to relate to their students so much better - they have a common ground on which to relate.  They understand each other.

Now, no research study would ever include whether a teacher gives nicknames or a student comes dressed as a cromagnon man to a teacher's door just to "have the last laugh," but I hope you can appreciate that I open up with that ridiculous story to make a point about the importance of having a relationship with your students.

When I see research such as this, it just resonates what so many good teachers know.

The Learning Lunch
You can take a supersmart person who hates kids and they will have the students "eating their lunch."  But you can take a semismart person who loves kids and has a foundation of knowledge and it is the students who will be "eating out of their hand."  It is about how they relate to students as to who gets served.

It isn't about being friends of the students or "hanging out."  One time I had a student who said to me, "We'd think you were cooler if you gave us at least one day off" and I quipped, "I'm not here to be cool, I'm here to change your life."  But if amidst the pushing and hard work, we can smile and laugh as we work together - then it gives me a rich, deep experience with these kids that truly makes me miss them -- even in the summer.

I love these students.  I also love helping other teachers see how to reach their students safely and effectively and to do it when you don't have a lot of money to support your program.  In some ways, I'm a total bundle of nerves about NECC coming up -- Gosh, I want to do a good job and everyone there is soooo amazing, it makes me feel sort of daunted by it.  But I'm working hard and hope also to foster the relationships with many of you who will attend virtually or in person.

Much of teaching is about relationship - if they know you care, they'll listen. If you know I care, maybe I can help you and I hope you'll take the time to teach me too.

So, picture your student, caveman hair to their waist with a textbook in hand standing at your door -- if you can... this is what they'd say:

"Give me relationship."

And if you listen -- you'll be halfway there.

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