The power of building powerful relationships with students
When I started my second year of service with City Year Milwaukee, I knew that building relationships with students was going to be different. As a Second Year AmeriCorps member, I had the privilege to work with two 7th grade classrooms, two 8th grade classrooms and a couple of 6th graders. In total, I worked with over 90 students a day. This was a big change from my first year of service, when I worked with one 3rd grade classroom, and meant that building relationships with students was going to be more challenging this year. Even though it was difficult, I made sure to build powerful relationships with the students I worked with.
Listening to my students helped me build strong relationships.
My first classroom of the day this year was my 7th grade homeroom. This classroom has a very special place in my heart. Since day one, I have witnessed the academic and social emotional learning of each student. Two of my students, Sebastion* and Giovanni*, were always known as the boys who did not like doing their work and just slept all morning. When I noticed their habits, I started to brainstorm ideas on how I could keep them engaged in class. Once I started to gain their respect and trust, I started sitting next to them during class. I noticed that the more I sat next to these two, not only would they do their work, but they started asking me questions about the stories we would read. The reason why I got through to them quickly, is because I listened, I asked and I understood. Ever since then, we grew a bond that couldn’t be broken.
Once I built relationships with my students, and learned more about their interests, I was able to help them learn.
Now for my girls, the Powerpuff Girls, Nia*, Sussy*, and Cassie*. These three girls are the sweetest, but sassiest, girls I have ever encountered. Building relationships with them was really tough at first. They did not like me because they thought I was mean and strict, which in reality, I just needed to break into their circle, and get to know them better. I discovered these girls loved Ramen Noodles so much, so I decided to bring them down for lunch one day and got to know them on a personal level. They started to trust me more and began feeling more comfortable with me. They started telling me about their academic struggles and why math was really hard for them.
After getting to know them better, I took it upon myself to tutor them individually every day. Working every day with them improved their test scores by 30%. They went from having 55% on their assessments to getting 85%.
I honestly cried because every day was a battle with them. To giving up, walking away from me, telling me to leave and never speak to them, to “thank you so much for your patience.” Not only did I teach them math skills, but I taught them to always trust the process.
The relationships I built with my students, helped me learn the individualized support they needed, in order to succeed in the classroom.
Now, my biggest struggle of the year was working with my 8th-grade girls. I cannot tell you how many times I felt unwanted, unappreciated and mostly frustrated every day. Every day was challenging, but I soon learned that they only acted out in class because they couldn’t understand math concepts and thought math was pointless. I worked with my partner teacher, and I kept on assigning them different seats and moving them around the classroom, but the problem was not going away when their seats were moved.
One day, I sat down with them and asked them what I needed to do so they could understand the concepts and feel heard in the classroom. One of them responded, “I don’t like sitting alone because it gives me anxiety.” Another one responded, ”Can you sit with us and explain the concept step by step?”.
Another thing I noticed was they were very infatuated with my colorful markers and pens. So, one afternoon, I asked for all four of them to go to the back of the classroom and sit with me. I asked them to each grab a colorful marker and pen. We started going over the concept of y=mx+b. We were graphing and trying to find the equation for the problem. I broke it down in eight steps. In each step, I always asked the why behind everything, and if they did not understand why, we would start the problem all over. We did this for the entire week until one Monday morning, my girls started to explain the concept to the entire class.
Again, I bawled my eyes out, not only because they understood and were explaining the concept, but they went up there with so much confidence. I knew they had it in them all along. I just needed to bring out the pens.
Building powerful relationships with my students was very important to me because, without trust, you cannot move forward. This was my investment every day. Since I had over 90 students, it was my goal to connect with at least one student from each classroom, every day. I wanted to learn everything about them, good and bad. I taught my students the value of truth and honesty. The reason why this was so important for me is because as a human, it is always important to reflect on your growth especially on your down days, and to always be true and honest with yourself. It’s also important to always admit when you are wrong and to always acknowledge your choices. I couldn’t be any more proud of the growth my students have done this academic school year. I miss them so much but I know they are going to do wonderful things in high school and in 8th grade.
*Names changed to protect privacy of students
Want to read more about the powerful impact of relationship building? Check-out City Year Milwaukee AmeriCorps member, Julia’s, story of believing in the power of young people.
About the author: Fernie Torres proudly serves as a Second Year AmeriCorps member on the Julia A. Uihlein team at Alexander Mitchell Integrated Arts school and is a proud alum of Bay View High School. When asked why she serves, Fernie said, “People tend to look down at the students with low grades and challenging backgrounds, but what they don’t see is the knowledge behind their eyes. I am here to give a voice to our students. I believe everyone deserves an education and the benefit of the doubt, and that their history does not define who they are now. That is why I serve.”
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