I would like to think that I am one of the good ones. I think that I understand my students.

In the first few days of my course, I tell students that they . . .

  • can come to me if they need an extension on an assignment, ask, and I will grant it,
  • can make up a quiz or an assignment as many times as they need to get the score they want,
  • can request time to make up a quiz or a test if they missed it, and I’ll be there.

I often talk about how certain times of the year create more pressure points for students who are committed to several activities.

I think that I am such a good person when I show the depth of my understanding like this. What a great and empathetic teacher!


I Don’t Have a Clue

It turns out, I was nowhere close to being that caring teacher. I’ll admit, I didn’t have much empathy for my students. Sometimes, yes. But most of the time, no.

Lately I have been reading a book to help me become a better parent (at the time of this writing, I have three kids: an 8-year-old boy and two girls, 7 and 4). It’s titled How We Love Our Kids by Milan and Kay Yerkovich. Reading this book has me rethinking how I interact the young people I see on a near daily basis: my students. It is definitely helping me grow as a parent, but it is shaping me anew as a teacher also.

Drawing from the research and principles in Attachment Theory, the authors make the case that we are imprinted by our caregivers throughout our development, and this affects the style with which we build trust and connect with others.


I Avoid Connection

I’m not going to dive into the five styles, but I will admit that I am an avoider. Part nature and part nurture have shaped me into who I am: a man uncomfortable with emotions. I would prefer that relationships remain at the task level, where I team up with others to get things accomplished, but we agree to check our emotions at the door.

Empathy is challenging for an avoider like me. If one person is going to connect with another, then there must be understanding. One must listen to the other and hear the other out, even if it gets emotional, which is where I tend to draw the line. Others’ emotions make me uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. I’m the classic “Mr. Fix It” in my marriage. And that’s what I do in pretty much all human interactions–the moment things appear to get emotional, I rush to fix it.

I used to think the rush to fix things was my way of being helpful. But really it was my way of protecting myself from the messiness of genuine connection. I would rather feel comfortable than relate with people where they were. If I enter into other people’s stories, like my students’, I might experience sadness, loss, or even experience being heartbroken. Up until very recently, I went to considerable lengths to avoid this.


But what I have sacrificed is genuine connection with the young people in my classes. And here’s how: I projected my style on to them. I grew up learning to pull myself up by my own bootstraps. I was praised for doing things on my own and not needing help from anyone. Until very recently, I was convinced that this was what everyone needed. I had set up a mold that I was trying to get all of my students to fit into.

But the reality is that my students all have different needs. And though I can reasonably ask them to do most things on their own, they need help processing how their learning in my classroom fits into their lives. And, as much as I can as their teacher, I need to be ready to help them in that regard.

I have been avoiding the emotional state of my students because I believed they all needed to learn a certain measure of self-reliance. They needed to be independent! And though that is true, my only strategy was to throw them in the deep end to learn to swim, rather than process how the learning fit into their lives.

I am beginning to see that learning, for my students, requires much more than simply first, best instruction, clear expectations, and the opportunity to retake a quiz. My students need someone who is ready to enter the process with them. To help guide them through the steps. Sometimes they need someone there to just help them process the messy emotions that coincides with their learning, to give them hope that they will get through it.

A Way to Earn Trust

After teaching, communicating clearly, and setting expectations, if my students are getting stuck, I can talk them through the following:

  • What about this assignment is causing you stress/discomfort?
  • Describe those feelings.
  • Rate the intensity of the feelings, from 1 (low) to 10 (high).
  • How often do you feel this way?
  • How do you experience these feelings in your body? (like tension in your shoulders, tightness in your throat, headache, etc.)
  • How do respond to these feelings? What do you do as a result? (I like to eat).
  • When you respond this way, what are the consequences, what happens next? (i.e. get short with people when stressed out).
  • Have you experienced these feelings before? When? How did you manage them?
  • In this experience, and past experiences, what beliefs have you formed about yourself/others?
  • I hear you saying you feel _________________. What do you need? What can I do for you?

I don’t know how realistic it is to run through all of these questions, or if I would be able to get the time needed to get through each one, but imagine being able to sit with a student and go through them. Assuming he or she is comfortable enough to respond, and you were able to fulfill a reasonable request at the end, then you would go a long way toward building trust, security, and comfort with the student.

A month ago, I would have said, “You’re smart. You’ve got this!” And I would have thought that would have been encouraging enough. But it’s not. I can do more to meet my students where they are. I can better connect.

How have you built your skill at listening to your student?

Leave a comment below. 

Share this post with teachers who are trying to better reach their students.

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One thought on “How We Love Our Students

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