…or give them a high five. Or a fist-bump. Or a pat on the back.
Every morning starts the same way for me. I drive my daughter and I to school, we drop my things in my room, and then I walk her over to her elementary school to begin her day. Then I walk back, smiling and wishing a good day to all the kids walking on the sidewalk or into their first classes. Somewhere in that routine every morning, I get a hug from at least one former student of mine. Every. Single. Day.
I feel like I need to stop to address the elephant in the room: Yes, I hug my students. If they ask for one, if they reach out, if they are crushed or sad and I have asked if they need one, I hug them. Sometimes it’s a high five (or an air high five) or a fist-bump or a pat on the back, but sometimes it’s a hug. I’m in the low-paying, high-need, extraordinarily rewarding, all-consuming, emotionally-draining, incredible business of education (aka relationships), and if a student asks for a hug, I won’t say no…
…because I don’t know what they just walked out of before they walked into my room.
…because some of them have told me that they hate the weekends because school is more stable than home.
…because it’s a compliment that they want to hug me.
…because they might not be able to remember the last time someone hugged, high-fived or fist-bumped them.
…because someday in the not-so-distant future, each and every one of these kids is going to leave our classroom and our school, and I want them to be kind, compassionate, empathetic humans who make others feel important and loved.
One day last year, one of my junior high students made an incredibly poor decision in the way he treated another student in our classroom when I was out for the day and had a sub. When I returned and heard about his behavior, my principal and I had a discussion with him that, although calmly delivered and threat-free, resulted in his breaking down in tears. Instinctively, I put my arm around his shoulder. In that moment, he was scared and he lied, but I stayed.
Later in the day, he came up to me and told me the truth: He had said the terrible things we asked him about, but he was scared to disappoint me any further than he already had. When he finally unloaded the real story, he said: “Thank you for comforting me even though you were disappointed in what I’d done and you knew I was lying. I just didn’t want you to be mad at me.”
That was the moment that I truly understood the power of a hug (or a high five or a smile or whatever you’re comfortable sharing with your kids to show them you care). It hadn’t even crossed my mind at the time, but what it showed my student was that he could count on me to be in his corner no matter what. I would continue to respect and care about him as he made mistakes and learned how to be a good person. I wouldn’t turn my back if he messed up; instead, I’d stand next to him and help him find a way to pick up the pieces.
In education, the importance of authenticity and relationships can’t be overestimated. If the kids know you care, their investment in your class increases. I share my faults with them, I admit when I’m wrong, and I apologize.. If I’ve learned anything from the educators I read and respect, it’s that the three most important aspects of education are relationships, relationships, and relationships.
I learned it from my favorite professor in my graduate program, Dr. Lynn Masterson at Texas Sate University, who modeled for us every day what a positive classroom culture and a culture of writing can do for students. I learned it further from Susan Shires, my cooperating teacher at Steele High School in Cibolo, Texas, who knew her students so completely and took the time to really know and invest in me. I continue to learn it every day from my current principal, Rich, who makes knowing kids and teachers his business, even when his other responsibilities as principal feel overwhelming. I learn it from people like George Couros, Adam Welcome, Todd Nesloney, Joy Kirr, and many more, who write incredible books and blogs that shift my perspective and strengthen my resolve to be the best teacher I can be for the students I serve.
And if you’re a friend, colleague, student, or acquaintance who has ever hugged me, know that you’ve impacted me positively through the care you’ve shown when I needed it. I appreciate you.