Have you ever had a supervisor that strikes down your ideas when not aligned with theirs and makes you feel foolish when you have questions? I had one of those bosses prior to being a teacher. I often cried on the way home and he did nothing to help me grow professionally except make me feel like a failure. Conversely, I've had administrators that help me fix my mistakes and learn from them. They can disagree without making me feel incompetent and help me view errors as stepping stones, not setbacks.
This happens in the classroom as well. Teachers who pride themselves on rigidity and compliance may have orderly classrooms and may even produce amazing quantifiable results. But if our students are more intimidated than inspired, even if they are producing good scores, are we paving the way for continual learning and growth? Not necessarily.
For the most part, I agree with Rita Pierson when she said that kids learn best when they like their teacher (if you've never watched her infamous Ted Talk, please check it out). But more than just being likable, I believe teachers need to be approachable. Likability often impacts behavior and compliance, which can certainly impact learning. However, when students are stumped, we want them to feel safe expressing their confusion so we can address the gap. Otherwise, we won't find out until they earn a low score on an assignment or assessment. Learning is accelerated when they are comfortable admitting they are puzzled. Moreover, it's also feedback on our practice. Student comments and questions tell us as much about our instruction as an administrator's observations. Our job is to ensure our students are really learning, not to ensure that all the right boxes are checked off on the evaluation instrument.
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A student once described me as a good cop and I took it as a huge compliment. Good cops are sympathetic, supportive and understanding. Conversely, bad cops are aggressive, intimidating and overall negative. A police officer's role is to promote safety in order for the community to thrive. Communities thrive when their residents feel safe. Likewise, students are likely to thrive in a safe learning environment. We need to have good relationships with students not only for their social and emotional well-being but most importantly so they can assimilate the content. When I earn students' trust, I demonstrate that I am in their corner, not to be their buddy, but to bridge gaps that are keeping them from achieving their potential.
But what does being approachable look like in the classroom? Here are some ideas:
- Be transparent and authentic. Teachers are humans and we shouldn't pretend to be perfect. We weren't born experts in our content and we are all still learning. Sharing our struggles and imperfections with our students fosters a growth mindset. Some students will thrive quickly while others will take a while, but all students can learn and grow. Being honest and real simply lets students know that every child belongs in school.
- Make questions an expectation of all. I was one of those kids who never asked questions. Not because I didn't have any - I had a ton - but because I was too afraid to ask a silly question and look foolish in front of my classmates. Rather than ask "do you have any questions", ask students to think, turn and talk with a partner and develop one or more questions. This sends a message that questions are normal and part of learning - not about being less smart.
- Ask them what they're thinking. Acknowledge and validate their thought process, prior to correcting an error. I've used this approach with writing. I ask students to tell me what they are thinking as they write so that the emphasis is on the message rather than the mistake. This can be done in any subject area. It's a more strength-based approach and builds momentum.
- Foster a culture of self-advocacy. It's crucial for students to look out for themselves as they navigate the learning journey. Rather than waiting for a grade, encourage students to speak up when they don't understand or may need some scaffolding. People who speak up and are proactive will generally accomplish much more than those who sit back and wait for things to fall on their lap. But most importantly, focus on learning more than grades. While scores are very important, sometimes they measure test-taking skills and memorization more than learning. If students don't retain what they learn, it will be disposable after the term. An approachable teacher helps students feel safe speaking up for their academic needs. Moreover, a culture of learning and self-advocacy helps students focus on their growth and worry less about everyone else's.
I frankly don't care if students like me - I certainly don't need to be part of their social circle - but if students aren't comfortable approaching me when the content is challenging, they won't progress. Being approachable is about removing barriers to growth and setting them up for success in our classrooms and beyond.