How Do You Relate to Students When You’re a Nerd?

One of my biggest goals this year has been to improve on building relationships with students and fostering in them the skills for life, what we at Summit Trail call our Sabercat Keys: Self-Discipline, Adventurous, Best Effort, Enthusiastic, Responsible, Committed, Appreciative, and Tough.  I’ve referenced these skills throughout my teaching in various forms, and have always strived to connect with students through the lens that those skills will carry you through no matter what career or path you choose in life. That element I’ve always felt was one of my biggest strengths, but connecting on a personal level with students has always been tougher for me.  I’ve found it takes a lot longer to break down those walls & build a trusting partnership with students, and that while consistent effort is crucial in building those connections, being able to relate to the lives of students matters even more. Being relatable I think is the biggest struggle I have in working with middle school students.

Some of that struggle admittedly stems a bit from middle school students being at an age where their emotions and behaviors change so rapidly and the willingness to be connected with an adult is not the “cool” thing to do.  BTW: I know that just made me sound like I’m a thousand years old. However, I think the biggest struggle I have is that I am, and always have been, a nerd. I’ve come to own that description of myself, though I do still occasionally lean on being a Renaissance Man, and yes, I do realize that the use of that term only further confirms my nerdiness.  My issue is that my story contains no real struggle or difficulties when I was at the age of my students.

I will be the first to admit I grew up in a world where I was blessed & privileged.  I don’t have a story of hardship that made me better, or of overcoming tragedy or trauma.  My parents are still married, 51 years now, both worked and provided for my brother and me.  We were sent to schools where the climate and culture were strong, with great teachers who fostered in us a love of education, so much so that both of us are now teachers in public schools. We took vacations as a family in the summers, exploring the national parks and learning much of our nation’s history through those historic sites.  Both parents attended our sporting events, concerts, and conferences, and I don’t recall wanting for anything. I say all this, not in pride for my upbringing, but simply as a realization that I know my story is unique when compared with the students I have taught over the last 14 years. Many of my students do not experience those blessings daily.  Many of them come from traumatic experiences that could not even begin to empathize with because I have no framework for understanding their stories. Their experience is not mine, and so to even begin to process their life stories and to figure out why their reactions and feelings toward education are so different I fall back on my nerdy self & I read books about difficult behaviors.  I implement the strategies and techniques, and while they certainly help with managing difficult behaviors & helping students find some measure of academic success, I never feel like I build that connection with some who need it the most.

That isn’t to say I haven’t found some success in this area.  I have lots of thoughtful notes and cards from students over the years.  In the past two weeks I’ve had one student tell me “I really enjoy being able to talk about music and how my day was with an adult.  It’s nice to have a teacher who is also a friend”, and two other students have shared with me stories of their hardships in life from drug abuse to foster care.  I certainly cherish those connections and try to build more and more of them with student, but when you’re a nerd, those kids who’ve not had positive experiences in school a lot of times don’t see you as a relatable person.

I got into this profession because I love learning, because I’m a nerd.  And I got into this profession because I had amazing educators, but I was not the kid teachers generally worry about.  So I’m leaving this post with the same question I opened it with: How do you relate to students when you’re a nerd? Feel free to add comments to the tweet.


Summit Seeker(s) of the Week: This week I’m shouting out another educator/author & an amazing colleague: Tara Martin & Suzanne Worner. Tara is a district administrator in Kansas, leading curriculum & coaching instructional coaches.  Her book, Be REAL: Educate From the Heart, (which I am still reading!) provides wonderful guidance and advice from her own life experiences and her career as an educator.  If you haven’t read this book you need to! My only regret is I missed a chance to hear her speak at Summer Spark this year (so many great choices, so little time). You can follow her on Twitter @TaraMartinEDU.  Suzanne is one of the best educators I’ve been privileged to work with.  She runs the 8th Grade Transition Room at Turner Middle School, which serves as an intensive, small group learning environment for students at-risk of failing and/or dropping out of school.  Her work not only helps these students find academic success, but sets them up for success outside of school through the teaching of life lessons and holding them to high expectations. Students often enter frustrated, angry, and with a negative outlook on their lives and futures.  They leave with skills and confidence ready for success in high school and the world beyond. Her ability to connect with kids is truly amazing & have learned so much from her example. She needs to get on Twitter & share her story & teaching awesomeness!