I wasn’t a very good student when I was in high school. Rightly or wrongly, I saw many school rules as unnecessary power trips, only in place to keep me in place. I did my best to fight those rules at every turn.
But I did worse things than fight the rules. One of the worst was treating teachers cruelly, especially when I was part of a group. Cruelty is easier when you do it with others.
One teacher I treated very poorly was Miss Stumpf, a newly minted English teacher. In Miss Stumpf’s class I took every opportunity to communicate that I didn’t care. I went into her class an alienated teenager, looking for ways to sabotage whatever learning experience she had planned.
One day I was walking home tired after a tough football practice (we always had tough practices after we lost, and we always lost) and Miss Stumpf drove by, stopped, and asked me if I wanted a ride. (This was back in the early 70s when teachers still felt safe making such simple offers.) I was very happy to not have to walk, and I accepted the ride.
Something amazing happened when we talked. I found myself speaking with her in the same way I would talk to my friends or family. In a matter of seconds, literally, my understanding of her was transformed. In the midst of our friendly interaction I realized that she really cared about my success. I realized too, that the teacher that I had treated so terribly was just as real a person as I was and certainly a lot nicer.
From that day forward I had a different relationship with Miss Stumpf. The reason why was simple: I now saw her as a real person.
My experience with Miss Stumpf exemplifies something Martin Buber talks about in I and Thou. When we see others as objects, we can do terrible things to them simply because we don’t recognize that they are real. Of course we know that they literally are just as human as we are, but we don’t see them having the same feelings as we do. When we see people as real, however, as subjects, we see them as fellow human beings. Seeing through empathetic eyes rather than cold dehumanizing eyes transforms our relationships with others.
One of the simplest ways to move from being an object to a subject is to do what Miss Stumpf did, to have one to one conversations. I’ve written about one to one conversations as an important part of instructional coaching, but I see them as important relationship-builders in all settings, and especially in the classroom.
We can (and I think should) make one to one conversations a ritual of our classrooms. They can be scheduled through out the school year. They might be scheduled informally outside of class, or formally, in class while all other students are engaged in an activity that doesn’t require teacher direction.
One to one conversations could focus on student progress, but they can also focus on our progress. We can ask children for feedback on what is and isn’t working for their learning. What matters in these simple exchanges is that we try to connect with our students and reveal ourselves as real.
Organizational theorist Peter Senge has written a comment that I love: “the way forward is about becoming more human, not just more clever.” Senge’s words are just as meaningful in the classroom as they are in the boardroom. And one way we can become more human is through more one-to-one conversations.