Over the past few weeks, I have worked at a transitional school that helps unaccompanied, asylum-seeking minors prepare for Irish secondary school. Work means spending considerable time with students, day-in and day-out—offering classroom assistance, 1-on-1 tutoring, sports after class, field trip supervision, etc. Despite spending all this time together, I don’t actually speak the same language as many of the students. Moreover, the fact that they come from a range of diverse places including Iraq, Syria, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Venezuela means they often don’t speak the same language as each other. Not surprisingly, our time together is filled with large misunderstandings that require much effort to undo. Even making the most basic of requests can be challenging—for both parties. I, as a teacher, desperately yearn to reach a point of understanding with the student, that at once helps the student and validates my contributions to the school. For their part the students grapple with my words, thoroughly puzzled yet determined to provide an accurate response. They make this effort because they so desperately want to realize their own academic possibilities.
These challenging interactions have pushed me to rely on behavioral rather than verbal reasoning. I try to reach a point of understanding with the students by focusing on the emotional and psychological reasons behind their actions, and accommodate and respond to those as best I can. In this way, I feel as though I am better able to get the feedback I need to help them get to where they want to go.
I consider why and how they say what they say as much as what they actually say. I get to know what they like and what they don’t like, their sensitivities and their strengths. In my experience, the feedback gathered at this level allows me to understand them better as human beings (regardless of language). It has also proved to be very useful in establishing trust among the group. This trust is a key in facilitating open, attentive, and earnest conversations between myself and the students. In short, it has made it possible for the students to be at ease with me. With this kind of relationship, I am able to move amongst the students with ease and free from the suspicion that can sometimes cloud their judgment of new adults they meet. More importantly, I have been able to create meaningful bonds with students where I might otherwise have been limited to impersonal interactions.
This is not to say, that I have discovered the secret to teaching, but rather to highlight an underrated aspect of engaging with students, especially ones coming from such different backgrounds. In an environment where consequences are rarely clear and student engagement is optional these kinds of relationships can lead to a willingness to lean in and an eagerness to learn.
Establishing trust with the students means being open to what they have to say, refraining from condescending judgments, and constantly trying to put oneself in their positions. The effort is well worth it. I have seen students develop legitimate attachment to their instructors and a clear desire to pay that same respect back. With students from such radically different cultural backgrounds this desire takes many forms. One of my students insisted on buying me coffee after one extremely honest conversation. He knew that I was genuinely looking to understand him. This was the reason he responded with such warmth. Another student surprised me by trying to give me a 10-euro gift—a staggering amount of money given his 20-euro weekly allowance—following a series of highly stimulating, but very off-topic conversations during math class. He wanted to know all about my life in California. He expressed a desire to travel himself. The incredible enthusiasm with which he talked about these things made it impossible to ask him to stop. Instead, I would wait until he finished, offer serious words of encouragement, and then move on. Here and elsewhere I was trying to send the message to my students that I value their wellbeing as much as I care about their performance in the class.
Of course, flattering as they are, these gestures of generosity on the part of my students are not my goal. Rather, this energy and their desire to reciprocate often leads to something more—an invigorated class environment. Students try harder to engage with instruction once we establish a relationship of mutual respect and consideration.
I understand that this practice can be tricky. I also understand that if this is done poorly, the line between teacher and friend can be blurred. Finally, I also realize that students need to get in the habit of responding to respectfully to authority. However, in an environment that, despite our best efforts, students are frequently misunderstood and increasingly isolated from the channels of self-expression these basic human connections can go a long way. In the school, students have often been uprooted from their homes as well as the emotional resources associated with family and community. Consequently, establishing oneself as a someone who can be trusted to be human amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces can endear a teacher to a student in ways that are truly powerful—even in a classroom setting. Students profoundly appreciate being made to feel comfortable.
At the end of the day some people may well agree with that there is a need for these kinds of human connections, but object to the idea that this should occur during instructional time, like it did in that math class I mentioned. To those people I say, the benefit of gaining a student’s trust, in my experience, has generally outweighed the marginal improvement they could have made with their long division in that time span. My brief time at the school has led me to believe, if you have an opportunity to reach that level of trust with a student, you take it.