I recently toured a nonprofit in Medford called Kids Unlimited. KU identifies traditionally disadvantaged students at an early age and provides them with extra-curricular activities, academic support and mentorship in hope that they will stay in school and earn diplomas. Of the first 18 students who entered the KU program ten years ago, 12 of them graduated from high school, and KU’s success has only grown since then. It took me two minutes with the KU founder, Tom Cole, to recognize that he is a gem of a leader – visionary, committed, charismatic, and no-nonsense. I asked him what he thinks is the key to KU’s success. He gave a one word response – relationships.
I’ve been thinking about that word a lot lately. I’ve shared this story with others. When I got to “relationships” in the story one colleague responded, “You can’t teach that.”
I’ve been thinking about that, too, and I think my colleague may be wrong. I think teachers can learn relationships, not from a curriculum, but by seeing it in practice. I know I did. To this day, I still think about my ninth-grade social studies teacher, Mr. James, who had so much fun with us while challenging us to think like we’d never thought before, all while administering no tests or quizzes of any kind. I still think about the Roseburg High School principal I shadowed for an hour twenty years ago, watching him look students in the eyes in the breezeway and honor them for successes or challenge them to rise up – I could literally feel the love and respect between them.
It makes me realize how important it is to place prospective teachers with the right mentors, those who not only are talented with curriculum and assessment, but also adept at connecting with young people in meaningful ways. Short of that, prospective teachers should watch hours of video of teachers who are notably effective at caring for students and striking a balance between having fun with them and holding them accountable to high expectations. If this video doesn’t exist, it should be made. It won’t be hard to find these teachers – We all know them.