You’re More Than a Math Student, You’re a Person

By: Shane Capps

I can remember my very first week in the classroom at my school. “How old are you? Do you play basketball? How tall are you?” All innocent questions. All coming from my new students — wondering who this young guy was that would be teaching them through the end of the school year. I came in after the school year started, which is NOT an easy time to enter into a classroom. Relationships were already formed with their previous teacher, and quickly broken with my entrance into the classroom. They already knew expectations, and had become used to the old way of doing things. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but forging relationships with my new students was going to be the quickest way to win them over.

After the honeymoon period was over, we hit a rut. I was a new teacher, teaching a difficult subject: math. It was a high school level course being taught in middle school, so for many, it was the first time they truly felt challenged with the material. Not to mention the many shortcomings I had with it being my first year in the classroom. I sometimes felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants — figuring it out along the way. Constantly questioning every strategy, every lesson, and every decision.

I can remember one particularly challenging student. He had gotten quite far behind with understanding the material, and lost sight of the value of being in the class. He was disruptive and had a general lack of respect for the material. I was at a loss. I became flooded with questions. How could I possibly let this kid slide further and further behind? Is one student’s failure alright if everyone else succeeds? Should I always expect a few kids to be completely disconnected from me and my class? I didn’t have any answers.

Fortunately, I had an amazing principal and mentor who always had the right words for the situation. “Two-for-ten,” she said. “Take the opportunity to talk with him twice a day for ten days about something completely unrelated to your class. Show interest in him as a person, not just a math student.”

Those three words completely changed my life as a person, and a teacher.

He and I began talking about baseball, a mutual interest we shared. He quickly opened up about playing baseball, his favorite team, and his aspirations to be on the school team. Finally, neither of us dreaded the thought of him sitting in math class. It certainly didn’t turn into his favorite subject, but at least he knew that when he came to my class, math didn’t have to be his favorite subject. He knew that I saw him as an artist, an athlete, a friend, a little brother, a son, and a scholar – I saw him as a person. We had an unspoken understanding that he was valued and that he was expected to work hard.

His grades eventually shot up — from an F to a B within weeks. He had a renewed sense to do well. Missing work was turned in, and he suddenly had motivation to do homework and participate in class.

Later that semester, he made the baseball team, and I certainly made a point to go watch him play. To this day we frequently run into each other in the community. I make a point to ask about baseball, and even check in on how school is going.

Those three words saved our relationship.

What ended up being most valuable about my principal’s advice is that it works with every student. Every year there are some students that are more challenging than others. And every year I choose the two-for-ten strategy. It eventually sees fruition, and I make inroads in what might start as a difficult relationship with a student.

Relationships matter. A student will run to the ends of the earth if they know you love them. As adults, we must remember that If children are shutting down and shutting us out, they are doing exactly what children are supposed to do when they are afraid. It is left to us to be the adult who can look beyond the behavior and see the human beneath the negative behaviors. If we are willing to build a bridge, students rarely will choose not to join us on the other side.

As a teacher who creates a classroom community, and as a member of a larger school community, you have the opportunity to forge it of strong relationships. As the late, great Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Do your students feel loved, safe, and appreciated? I sure hope mine do.

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Having spent his 1st year as a permanent substitute, Shane is currently in his 3rd year teaching in Davidson, North Carolina. Interestingly, he wrote of teaching middle school as the only job he knew he never wanted. Funny how life works. Besides his love for being in the classroom, Shane likes traveling far and wide, hiking up mountains, tending the community garden, watching the UNC Tar Heels and Carolina Panthers, keeping up with current events, and drinking lots of coffee.


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