On being a human teacher – Part 2: Acknowledging students

Whenever I’m feeling the effects of Term 2, I try to leave the weariness and winter blues behind me at the school gate – no matter how acute they are. I don’t regard this mindset as an “on-switch” so much as embracing my role as an adult and leader of the school’s environment. (For more on how teachers lead environments, watch or listen here). And so, even if part of me would prefer to be curled up in a cosier setting, I try my hardest to brace against the elements – external and internal – and say good morning to each and every child I pass on the way to my office.

To describe my current school as an exposed site is being generous: we seem to have our own climate up there. It’s windier, colder and all in all grimmer in these cooler months. I teach at one of the Northern Metropolitan Region’s English Language Centres which offers intensive English language classes to recently arrived migrant students. My particular Language Centre is nestled within a Year 7-9 campus of a state secondary college. I’m telling you this because as I cross the school yard, I often don’t know the names of many of the mainstream high school students milling around.

And yet, despite our lack of acquaintance, I say good morning to those I pass – and every student, each day, offers some kind of greeting in return, even if it’s more of a grunt in my general direction. To watch the adolescents, who I acknowledge, soften in terms of demeanour towards me – some even smile, make eye contact, or make an additional comment about the day – is quite a profound experience. Without fail, every child responds. Every child. It’s extraordinary.

What is it about greetings that affects us, as humans, so deeply? I think it has something to do with the innately social being within us all who responds to human connection, even from a relative stranger. And a teacher in a school is hardly a stranger.

In my own lessons, I say my students’ names as I welcome them into our classroom. Nothing announces and affirms a relationship more than being personally greeted by your name. Similarly, where possible, I distribute worksheets, books and tests to students myself, instead of asking one of them to do it, so that I have an additional opportunity to say their names, and have a one-on-one interaction with them, however fleeting. In whole class learning time when students offer their ideas, questions or solutions I acknowledge them, and their contribution, by name. During independent work time I make sure I divide my attention as equitably as I can so that I am able to interact with all of them individually. And again, when I’m working one on one with them, I say their names.

It’s a conscious decision to acknowledge each of your students positively and by name, multiple times in a lesson. But I’ve learned that it’s worth it: students love it when you do. It is such a simple gift, that is so easily given. (To give those of you who aren’t in the classroom a sense of the scale of this challenge: in my current setting, I have up to 16 students in my classes, but in a mainstream classroom you can have up to 30.)

Maybe my students are especially “stoked” when I call them by name because it’s the first time they’ve been to school in a while, as their journeys to this country have been so long and fraught that their education has been disrupted. Saying their names, and acknowledging their presence in the classroom, reminds them of where they are, and shows them that they belong.

There are days when creating additional opportunities for personal interactions with students requires more of an effort. But it’s the hope (a naïve one perhaps) that if I can have a small, positive interaction with as many students on my walk into school, or in a lesson, or on yard duty, then maybe they, and everyone they interact with as well, will have a better day.

Here’s the thing about interacting with students and saying their names though: you have to mean it. They have to be able to feel and sense that you are genuine in your voice, eyes, head and heart. Adolescents and children have a finely attuned authenticity radar; they’ll know if you are sincere or not.

I like my morning ritual. It’s a great feeling to see students, whose names I have yet to learn, smile and interact positively with me. It makes me (and hopefully them) feel good. It readies me for my day, its purpose and work, and it reminds me of how I want to be. But, most importantly, it’s small, and achievable, and actionable. Every. Single. Day.


Read On Being a Human Teacher – Part 1

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