One of the most rewarding aspects of being a teacher is building relationships. Getting to know my students beyond their academic capabilities and seeing them develop into well-rounded humans is a gift.
I grew up surrounded by educators, and I always knew there was a special bond that develops between teachers and students. My grandmother was an elementary teacher for over 30 years (shameless brag—she taught Jay-Z who credited her in a documentary). She taught generations of my family members in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, during challenging times but was relentless in her passion for the children she served and for supporting many families navigating drug addiction and broken homes. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when I was 12 years old, but I’m grateful that I’ve learned so much about her over the years through my family members and community. Even today, 12 years after her passing, my family members still share stories about her “why” and many of them can vividly recall sitting in the classroom next-door to hers and feeling proud to be connected to her. And her impact reaches far beyond our family. I’ve heard countless stories from her past students, who I often run into in the community, about how fondly they remember her.
Coming from a family of educators inspired me but it also scared me at times. I have ten siblings and six of us are teachers, so I had an inside look at all the hats teachers wear, the stress they carry, the time and investment it takes—and of course the low salary, given how demanding the job is. Growing up, one of my sisters, who is 14 years older than me, was determined to do something different. Despite her best efforts, she felt called to the profession and became a substitute teacher fresh out of college. I was 10 years old at the time. Watching my sister follow in my grandmother’s footsteps to become a talented teacher and now principal encouraged me to follow suit. Today, when I run into my sister’s students in passing, they talk about her with respect and gratitude. She is beloved.
When I began my journey in the classroom, I decided to prioritize developing those bonds and really showing up for my students. I wanted to make an impact on my students, the way my grandmother and my sister have.
But then reality set in.
The Teacher Time Crunch
I became a substitute teacher in 2011 and immediately found myself juggling competing priorities and running out of time in my day. I couldn’t always reach my goal to put relationships first. Since then, I’ve transitioned through multiple roles in education, and even though I have years of experience behind me, I’m still juggling.
In my current role as a special education teacher at a junior high school in New Orleans, I teach 24 neurodivergent students in three classes across two grades, and I’m a case manager for 14 students. Between modifying curriculum, planning a schedule that includes supporting students in class and pulling students out of class, and being totally involved and present during IEP meetings, family meetings and behavior conferences, there’s barely an extra minute. There are so many to-do’s and at any given moment, I’m thinking about planning, preparing, instructing, troubleshooting, facilitating meetings and more.
Naturally, I’ve gotten to know my students through spending time with them in class, deeply reading their IEPs, modifying lessons to meet their needs and checking in to monitor growth. But these areas only allow me to understand each student to a certain degree—it’s like there’s this point where our relationship reaches a boundary that is not crossed. But I can tell there’s more to know about my students. My grandmother and sister found ways to break down that barrier.
Teaching through the pandemic reinforced my resolve that students need support beyond academics and highlighted that it can’t only be the school counselor’s role to work on social-emotional development. The school counselor can’t be the sole trusted adult figure students rely on for emotional support. I have to do that work too—we all do. The past two years certainly haven’t created more time or less tasks, but it has underscored my sense of obligation to support my students emotionally, and I’m committed to intentionally carving out the time to do it.
The Power of a Field Trip
After pandemic restrictions were lifted, and we began to resume more regular activities, I started building nonacademic time with my students into my schedule each week.
I began with a small step: I started each morning stopping students in the hallway to say hello and ask how they were doing. Building consistent morning rapport led me to start popping into homerooms to sit with my students, even when I wasn’t teaching them. This meant that I needed to shift my lesson-planning time, but it really paid off. My presence in new and unexpected spaces built familiarity and showed care. Engaging in a morning brain break with students in their homeroom added a level of connection we hadn’t experienced before and showed them that I enjoyed being with them. They knew I had work to do and that I was always busy, so they appreciated when I took time to be present, to laugh and joke with them.
Engaging with students during small moments and downtimes allowed me to become a better teacher to them, driving my instruction and leading to academic gains. Students learn best from people they trust, respect and yes—people they like. When they noticed the initiative I was taking to get to know them and knew that I was not just here temporarily, they began to open up more.
But it was when field trips resumed that I was able to spend more unstructured time with my students, learn more about them and use what I learned to make the most impact.
This past spring, during a school-wide trip to a local trampoline park, I got to connect further with my students, especially Destiny*. As I watched the students jump, I noticed Destiny tumbling and doing stunts on the trampoline. I wondered whether she did classes after school or how she honed this talent. I asked her about it and she shared about her interest in dance and gymnastics. This was news to me. She was shy to speak up about her talents in class—she didn’t think she was that good, but as I watched her, I stood back and thought, “Wow, this girl is amazing.” I thought about how I would never have known this side of Destiny if I hadn’t gone on the trip. I couldn’t learn this from the classroom. Yet, it was something I could bring into the learning environment and use to bolster academic growth, not only to encourage her to strive for greatness, but to bring content that aligned to her interests.
When I got home, I researched books that might interest Destiny. I started incorporating books by Michelle Meadows, Jake Maddox and Michelle Torres, who created series surrounding the art of gymnastics. These books were a touch higher than her independent reading level, providing a challenge, but she was hungry for the knowledge, so it was motivating. These books took what once felt like redundant, frustrating drills to strengthen her abilities in reading fluency and comprehension and turned it into something she looked forward to.
These two unstructured hours at the trampoline park taught me more about my students than I learned the year I had with them in the classroom.
Knowing My Students as Humans
I’ve always been intentional about seeking out nonacademic opportunities to bond with students, but now I officially plan it into my weekly schedule. Over the past five months, I’ve carved out lunch periods to spend with students, scheduled time to visit the yard to strike up casual conversations and created an open-door policy during my planning time when students can come to vent or share or what’s going on in their lives—whether it’s something positive or growing pains. I’ve gone to games to show my support, cheering my students on, attended after-school clubs to learn alongside them and on a few occasions, chaperoned planned weekend trips to provide students with new experiences.
What I’ve learned is that my students need to bond with adults who care about what matters to them. They need support in navigating their emotions and to be not only seen, but heard.
It is so difficult to be consistent and manage my time to ensure that my other priorities—which are truly imperative to my job—are met. I’ve had to reflect and be honest with myself. Sometimes I need to take time to close my door and focus. Sometimes I’m burned out and need a minute to myself, even if a student is seeking me out or asking me to come to a game.
But even when other responsibilities need to come first, I’m able to recognize that these moments that I’ve spent with students have helped me grow as an educator and have dramatically reshaped my teaching. I get to see how my students learn and experience their curiosity, their quirks, their joy—and I am able to let that inform my instruction.
Creating space and time to be present with my students as humans has allowed me to support their mental well-being, to have deeper conversations with them (and with their parents and teachers), and to invite them to express themselves. It’s allowed me to help them advocate for themselves, to ask for support when they need it and to participate and engage more. It has helped me to see my students as the individuals they are. Individuals who are in a transitional stage in their lives, influenced by many outside forces and competing messages. But these young people, at this critical stage of development, spend the greater portion of their day with their teachers and we get to help them grow into themselves. It is through my students that I can perfect my craft and be the educator I envision myself to be.
Now when I hear stories about my grandmother and the wonderful educator she was, I have a newfound understanding of how she got there and how strong her relationships were. When I am with my sister and we run into a former student of hers who shrieks with excitement to tell their own child: “This is Ms. Billy, my favorite teacher of all time,” I smile fondly, because I now know what it took to plant those seeds and the dedication it required to water them.
These women were effective educators because they made sure to develop not only the mind but the entire being and spirit. They touched, moved and inspired their students, and I am grounded by the fact that I am following in their footsteps.