The Importance of Knowing Your “Who” – Especially During a Pandemic

Where do you live? Where are you from? How many people are in your house? Do you have Wi-Fi? Do you have food? I have always said if I were a principal, one of the ways I would assess my teachers is by making sure they were cognizant of their student’s living situations – and here is the kicker – by the first month of school. While some respond to this with skepticism, explain it is unrealistic and share excuses; my twenty-one years as a classroom teacher keeps my mind steadfast on this, especially now – during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As reported on silive.com, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) reported that only 84.3% of students in grades pre-K through high school are engaging in schoolwork, according to data collected from April 6-14. Before the pandemic, attendance was 91.5%. While 80% sounds high, it isn’t when the education and wellbeing of students are involved. Even though schools are not experiencing regular classroom environments, teachers are still expected to indicate which students haven’t interacted; similar to marking students “absent” or “present” during in-person attendance. The article states that it is most difficult for high school students as only 77.1%, on average, are working on their assignments during this unique time in education. Where are these students?

As a teacher of 4th-12th grade students in seven schools, the common recipe for success has always been to build and maintain positive teacher-student relationships. I take the first two weeks, throw in lots of smiles, (in spite of the wait until Thanksgiving to smile advice from some educational “gurus”), mix in authentic connection, and my students suddenly talk – about everything. My experience has taught me, for true learning to take place the remainder of the year, to use the first month getting to know the “customers” sitting in front of me. Having students journal, partake in “speed dating” type conversations, creating “get to know you” projects, sharing about their families, hopes and dreams, no matter the subject matter, works. Standards are a must, but when they are wrapped in relationship building…this is where the magic lies. Most teachers would agree, but what about new students arriving later in the year? Do we stop teaching and get to know them? What about large class sizes? What happens when students don’t open up until Halloween and you are on semester blocks? The student sitting in front of you doesn’t speak English – what then? Relationships must start the moment eye contact is made, the first handshake occurs, and each day after.

To build relationships with second language learners, tenacity is required on the part of the educator, as well as wait time. Teaching ELL students for twenty-one years has taught me that these student’s emotional walls must first be peered over and then carefully broken down. Years of trauma, misunderstandings, and language barriers cause the brightest of learners and deepest thinkers to pause before offering their hopes and fears. Sharing will happen with the magic formula – love and authenticity. It has been my honor to watch walls not only fall, but students break down other limitations society places around them. These successful relationships are now my lifelong “kids.”

It is skill to get into people’s lives and do so with honor and respect. I take very seriously the space students offer and appreciate the bonds that an authentic connection creates. Perhaps years ago, it was easier. Teachers knew families and saw younger brother and sisters come up through the school environment. Communities were smaller, tighter knit, and part of the similar organizations and cultures. It was common for students to attend church and community events with teachers, and their children to have play dates together. Now, situations across districts have changed. Calling a student’s parent due to misbehavior can create an unknowingly negative situation. Teachers fear calling home and not being able to understand family members. Still, relationships must be built. Knowing if a student is doing poorly in school because of work, family illness or drama is important in assessing why their performance is slacking. These caring calls are important for rapports to exist. Not only is relationship building best practice…it should be the new precedent for the days in which we live.

No teacher expected this. Monday morning, March 16th, 2020, we were asked to come to school, but our halls were empty. The directive was to call our students and share news that we would be starting distance learning. Frantically, teachers began calling, encountering non-working numbers, language barriers and unanswered calls. Being bilingual, I assisted with interpretation. The great news – our teachers made it happen! We completed the task and established that our students had devices, Wi-Fi, and adequate support to begin the touch and go process that is now distance learning. Just like the article, the request is still being made to focus outreach on students who aren’t consistently engaging in their work and motivate them to do so. While calls, emails, video chats and texts are sufficient for some educators to check attendance, the remote learning that is taking place is difficult to assess. Districts across America are attempting to identify barriers and creating plans to assist their students and families with academic or social-emotional support during this time.

What makes me and similar teachers breathe a little easier? We already knew our “kids” before the Pandemic. I had a connection with my crew and we had discussed the possibility of this moment arriving at our doorstep. You could say we are a family. I know each of my students, who they live with, who works to help support their family, who lives by themselves, who battles depression, has experienced loss, deals with difficult situations, their academic levels, and how they may need support. Knowing my “WHO” makes it easier as a distant learning teacher, yet also more difficult! I miss them.

Why are relationships important? They save lives. Before a suicide is attempted, a call may be made to a trusting teacher. Because of them, needs are being met. When walls are down learning takes place and light can shine in to provide brighter days. During this difficult time of Covid-19, knowing my WHO allows me to better adapt to meet emotional needs and be a conduit to help with distinct situations. Each student’s story should be honored, and his or her life freely intertwined into our narratives. They are our kids, and we need each other more than ever. The importance of our WHO is now our HOW. How will we continue this new education journey and lead them to a brighter tomorrow?

Paige Watts
About Paige Watts

Paige is a teacher and Director of the Translation Academy at Dalton Public Schools. Paige has taught various grade levels for more than 21 years.

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