While I pursued my Master’s Degree in Teaching of English, I student-taught at a public middle school. As part of the process, I was assigned a cooperating teacher, someone who serves as a mentor to the student teacher. I respected my cooperating teacher, a brusque and fastidious woman, because she was an accomplished and effective educator. However, she disappointed me unexpectedly when, one day, I explained to her my motivation for becoming a teacher: “I love kids and I love English literature. I want to share my passion for books and writing with my students.”
“It’s good that you like your subject,” she said, “But loving kids shouldn’t be the main reason you teach; it just isn’t enough.”
At the time, since I looked up to her as my superior, I was too intimidated to defend my position. Now, seven years later, I can state it with certainty: I do love my students, and they are the reason I teach. They are the reason I walk into school smiling. They are the reason that, even at eight months pregnant, I volunteer to chaperone school trips. They are the reason I attend community events at the local high school, excited to see my former students growing up and coming into their own. They are the reason I hope to continue teaching until, God-willing, my students’ children have passed through my classroom.
That’s not to say I don’t worry about whether I will like my incoming students. I teach eighth grade, and there’s a big gap between seventh graders and eighth. Sometimes, I see the sixth and seventh graders in the halls and wonder, “How could I possibly love these kids as much as my current students?” My husband, also a teacher, laughs at me when I share my worries. He reminds me that he can no longer take seriously my recurring concern because, every year, when I get to know my new crop of students, I’m charmed all over again. I’m impressed. I grow to love them. But this bond is not a given. It takes work. Developing that bond has become an intrinsic part of my pedagogical philosophy: I put in the effort to love my students.
Over the years, I have developed a simple yet efficient system to ensure that I grow to love each and every one of my students: highlighting. With electric yellows, explosive pinks, and vibrant blues, I mark the strengths in my students’ writing while grading their work. I accentuate the positive, downplay the negative. I want them to see clearly where they have succeeded, what they have done correctly so that they know how they should continue writing.
So many of my students insist, “Mrs. Kastner, I can’t write!” The first time I return papers, the seas of colors overwhelm them. What did they do wrong? How did they make so many mistakes? And then they learn that the ink shows everything they have done right. My faith in their abilities reassures them and gives them the confidence to continue. Over the course of the year, each of my students fills a portfolio with assignments, self-reflections, and those highlighted papers. My students begin to respect the process as they reflect on their progress. We chart their growth together.
I don’t do this only for grading papers; when I teach, I do it, too. Accentuate the positive, downplay the negative. Kids can tell whether they are liked or disliked. They are aware of each snide remark or eyeroll behind their backs. Knowing this about them, I look for all they have to offer. I “catch” my students being good.
I work to like my students by bonding with them. I create a rapport by finding common ground: a television show we both watch, a song we both listen to, or a book we both read. I don’t have an athletic bone in my body, but I relate to the athletes by asking them to explain the rules of their favorite sports. “How about that line of scrimmage?” I’ll say, “Crazy how it’s not really there, right?” And they’ll laugh a little at me, and then answer some questions about football. It feels good to know more about something than the teacher does; I let them enlighten me. And I get to know more about these wonderful, relatable young people who show such promise and potential.
My students see me as their champion and cheerleader. I listen to them when they talk. I call them when they’re sick. I respond to their school-related nighttime or weekend emails. When they see I care, they flourish. If we are all on the same team, then there is no room for an oppositional relationship. When I show my students I like who they are and take interest in what they have to say, they are more likely to respect and care about me. This makes it even easier for me to love them. The give-and-take dynamic nurtures a stronger reciprocal relationship between us.
I’ve heard people say that teachers shouldn’t care what their students think of them. That advice is misguided. Teachers should care to a point. I don’t care if my kids think I’m cool or funny or trendy (although I will say I am way more popular in middle school now than I ever was as a student). But I care if they think I’m fair and balanced in my grading and in my treatment of them. I care if they feel I appreciate them. I care if they know I’m concerned about their well-being, safety, and intellectual growth.
My old cooperating teacher might not approve, but my love for kids will continue to brighten my classroom. I will continue to highlight the strengths of my students’ writing. I will continue to highlight the precious qualities within my students. I will accentuate the positive, downplay the negative, and one day, when I meet my Maker, maybe He will show me the book of my life. I hope that, if He does, it will be covered in electric yellows, explosive pinks, and vibrant blues.