My family and I stepped into Taco Bell, me unwillingly, and my kids ecstatic. It is one of their favorite places for some reason. If I can be honest, I hate the establishment of cheap, unrefined Mexican food more than most fast food eateries I happen to frequent, but today's visit had a purpose. I was meeting three students ironically all named Jack who I currently taught. They were seniors, and I had promised them I would dine at the establishment--one that I despise and they love--before they graduated. I always uphold a promise, and so, last year, my family of five joined my three students for dinner.
Twenty years ago, that never would have happened. Honestly, five years ago that never would have happened. The way I approach relationships in my classroom has changed drastically, and I am a better teacher today for making the change.
I remember about fifteen years ago walking into a colleague's math classroom. He was joking with his students; I marveled at how much fun they were having in math class. He had a rapport with them that was unlike other teachers I had observed. I always have prided myself on knowing my students, on connecting with them in the classroom. When I was younger and had more time and no kids of my own, I constantly attended school events--games, plays, music concerts. I still try to do that now if I can. I always have felt it was important to be a part of my students' lives. In their adult lives, several have invited me to their weddings. I've celebrated the births of their children and even had a former student who was a nurse in the delivery room when my daughter Katie was born. Yet despite these flourishing relationships I know I have always built with students, there was a wall that I put up between us. They didn't get to know too much about my life because I was scared to let them in. They didn't know I love bands like the Beatles and that I grew up on Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, and Paul Simon. They didn't know that a handwritten note is one of my favorite things in the world as is dipping my feet in the ocean no matter how cold the temperature. They didn't know that I despise things like emojis and Taco Bell and that I faithfully get up at 5:20 a.m. every day to run. Why? I was simply focused on the curriculum. I had been told early on by veteran teachers not to smile, not to really let down my guard. I had been told not to tell students what I really thought. I think about the number of students who came before last year's class, and sometimes I find it unfortunate. There are many students I still regularly communicate with and feel I had a connection with in the classroom, but they didn't know the "real" me because I was too scared to show them.
Somehow last year was different for me. When you teach the same thirty kids in four different classes, you start to finally feel comfortable to open up to them. I started to keep a blog (kellyapace.blogspot.com) for my students to read about the thoughts musing around in my head. I told my students who I was and sent them individual emails. I sent the entire class emails. I talked to them about what I feared in life. They know the kinds of music I like and that I want to write a book. They know that I hate being in the spotlight. They know that certain words just get under my skin when used in a modern context and that I forever will punctuate and write texts that are grammatically correct. Most importantly, they know how I feel about them. All of the sudden, there were no walls. I felt like a real person to my students as opposed to a teacher who knew the information. Because let's face it; deep down, I don't know all of the information. I am a learner in my own classroom. Every. Single. Day. I don't know how it all happened or the day it changed, but I am a different teacher because I smiled, let down my guard and opened up to my students. The student/teacher relationship still existed in the sense that there was respect between us. This relationship was not a friendship of sorts by any means, but a mutual understanding of who we were as human beings.
As a result, I learned things about them that I never knew--even after teaching these students for four classes over four different years. The number of students fighting depression was astounding to me. Yet, they came to see me to tell me about their battle wounds. The number being bullied, who were sad, who were going through "something" opened my eyes to see that sometimes the students we see in front of us are not necessarily the students they truly are. They have millions of layers that sometimes need to be peeled but can't if I, as a teacher, put up a wall. It made me sad initially to know that these students were struggling; that I had no idea of their battles they were fighting. Yet, I also recognized the idea that I can continue to make a difference in the lives of my students, that maybe they finally chose to tell me what they did because I enabled them to know me.
After twenty years my taste for Taco Bell has not changed, but my idea of how I need to relate to my students certainly has. In 1987, I remember watching Ronald Reagan's famous speech where he stated, "Tear down this wall," as he encouraged Mikhail Gorbachev to open up the barrier which divided East and West Berlin. In a similar fashion, my students last year were screaming that very same thing to me. I finally had the sense to tear down my own wall in my classroom.
So, what kind of teacher meets her students for Taco Bell? One who recognizes the importance of relationships, who doesn't build walls but tears them down. The one who is willing to sacrifice taste just to hear what her students have to say. The one who has realized that she had been wrong all along for the past eighteen years of her teaching career. The one who is a better person, certainly not for eating tacos, but for recognizing that relationships are everything in this business--even if it does mean field trips to Taco Bell.