I believe that students won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Once they realize this—watch out! The potential for learning in your class will be limitless.
When I was in high school, I started watching “Cheers” on TV. I watched in part because Coach made me laugh, but mostly because I loved the theme song. Every time the singer crooned,
“Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
I would think to myself: Yes. Yes, I do want to go to this magical place where everyone liked me and choruses would erupt when I walked in the door. How great would that be? Who wouldn’t want that?
Since I was a child, I was a good student and well behaved so I was largely ignored by teachers and never encouraged to reach for more than just getting good grades. Most teachers knew little else about me besides my academic standing and they didn’t seem to want to know more. I lost count of the number of times I was called by some other dark-haired girl’s name. (The principal even said my name incorrectly when announcing my scholarship at graduation!) I got the message that hard work and good behavior was all that was expected of me. I got used to being invisible. I never stood up for myself. I shut down emotionally. Even though I loved learning, I never liked middle or high school. I wonder if this may have been different if any adult outside of my immediate family had ever told me that I mattered and that I was enough. (See Angela Maiers’ “You Matter Manifesto.”) However, it did make me the kind of teacher that I am, and my students benefit from what I never had.
My sister’s best friend, a teacher, was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show finale so I watched when I normally did not. I’m glad I did. Oprah said something that has stayed with me ever since: “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?” She put into words what I wanted a child and what I want for my students. This is my idea of the perfect classroom—a place where every student feels acknowledged, validated, and cherished.
My classroom climate is based on this ideal. I want every child to know that I see them. I hear them. They matter to me. I spend a great deal of time and energy getting to know them personally to achieve this environment. The first few days of my class are devoted to learning their names and a bit about them. Several years ago I received one of the best compliments I’ve ever been given by a student. She told a peer that the best part about my class was, “Every student is Mrs. Mizerny’s teacher’s pet.” I am proud of the fact that all of my students feel like my favorite. They give me this feeling in return. And I know all of their names.