In my post entitled “Why, When, and Where You Should Transfer”, I wrote that building strong relationships with students is the absolute most important thing a teacher can do to help students succeed in their education and lives. This is dogma to me. I will preach this until humans evolve the ability to learn from each other through telepathy, thus rendering the teaching profession obsolete. via GIPHY
Since that hasn’t happened yet, you and I must continue teaching with empathy and compassion. For some, doing so is easy. For others, eh… not so much. A teacher I used to work with once told me she didn’t have a single “touchy-feely” bone in her body and she honestly had no idea how to develop strong relationships with her students. It’s okay if you’re like her. That’s what this series of posts is for. Let me show you how I do it.
A little while back, I wrote about my journey (thus far) to physical fitness in the post entitled “It Sucks. I Hate It. Let’s Do It.” I mentioned the Running Club I participated in at my old school and the Active Club I just got started at my new site. One of the great benefits of having a physical fitness club at school is that I get to exercise as part of my work day. When the club meeting is over, I can just go home and relax and not have to worry about working out. That was the main reason why I joined the Running Club at my old school site back in 2015. However, I discovered another perk: it brought me closer to the students, many of whom were not even in my science class. After having reflected on it, I think I know why that is.
I can say without a doubt that I am not, nor have I ever been the most physically fit member of either the Running Club or the Active Club. Kids, even tiny little 80 lbs ones, would routinely zoom passed me in the Running Club. I’ve got a kid in my Active Club right now who already has 6-pack abs and can do crunches all day while I’m soaking with sweat trying to do a fraction of what he is capable of. But one thing the kids seem to really respect about me is my drive to improve and carry on. When the kids see me turning bright red, huffing and puffing to catch my breath, and yet continuing to run, they are impressed with my capacity to “suck it up”. Sure, some of them laugh at me, but even those kids eventually give me “mad respect”.
Back in 2016, when the Running Club members were preparing for track season, I decided to train with them to help me get ready for my half marathon a month later. At the end of the first training session, I was completely out of breath after coming in DEAD LAST on our run. I couldn’t even stand up straight for a few minutes. I remember one of the best long distance runners we had at the time patting me on the back as I was hunched over, gasping for air, and he said out loud to everyone, “DAMN! Mr. Vo put in work!” In other words, I earned a lot of street cred from him and the others, not for being the best (remember, I was DEAD LAST), but for giving it my best. So, you don’t have to be the best either. The kids just need to see you give it your all. If you keep giving it your best, you’ll continue improving until eventually you’ll actually be in pretty good shape. That will earn you even more street cred. I may not be the fastest runner or have the best cardio, but no one in either the Running Club or the Active Club can do more push-ups or pull-ups than me.
Progress, Not Perfection
Yes, the kids and I stretch, do calisthenics, and run in my clubs, but there’s so much more to them than just exercise. There are opportunities for the kids to feel good about themselves at every single club meeting. Regardless of whether or not they were the best at a particular physical activity, made improvements, gave it everything they had, or just got off their butts for about an hour, other club members and I shower them with encouragement and accolades: Outstanding, You did it, Go get it, That’s how you work, That’s my boy/girl, Show ’em how it’s done (Sorry about the dreadful grammar)! Just imagine what it feels like to come to a place that does not judge you on your abilities and throws positive vibes at you for doing what you’re capable of. After a while, they’ll realize you’re on their side and you really will try to help them succeed. There’s no way the kids walk away at 4:00 PM without feeling supported and pretty damn good about themselves.
I tell the kids all the time that I don’t care if they can’t run the full 1 or 2 miles that we typically do, or they’re unable to do even one push-up, sit-up, whatever. It’s all about progress, not perfection (I stole that line from Denzel, which he said in the film “The Equalizer”). Adopting this adage allows the kids to come as they are without feeling ashamed of whatever level of fitness they may possess. They know that neither I nor the other club members will laugh or make fun of them if they aren’t in shape. By letting the kids know that progress is what matters in my club, the pressure to be amazing is taken off their shoulders. It’s suddenly okay for them to tell me they can now run half a mile without stopping, or they’ve gone from being able to do just one push-up to now having the ability to do two because they know they’ll get a high-five from me. They also know it’s okay to take breaks anytime they need. Earlier this week, a new student joined Active Club. I’ll refer to him as John. He is very much out of shape, but he was excited to join because he had heard from another club member that I’ll help get him in shape in a low-anxiety setting. When I finally met him, I told him that I didn’t need him to be the best at anything. I only wanted to see him improve over time. I made sure to keep an eye on him for the two meetings we had this week. When he paused to rest in the middle of a set of front-to-back lunges, I told him there was no shame in taking a break and that everyone starts somewhere. He smiled and nodded, and continued to rest. When we did planks, he held his position for 1 minute, then declared it hurt too much and then lied down flat on the floor. He laughed as he groaned in pain. I could sense he was not at all embarrassed, and I praised him for hanging on as long as he did while I remained in plank position. John is still excited to come to Active Club and doesn’t seem embarrassed at all about his physical shortcomings. I suspect had I not adopted the progress, not perfection motto, kids like John would be too self-conscious about what they can’t do to even show up.
Lead By Example
I actually love the fact that I’m not the fastest or fittest person in my clubs. It’s difficult to inspire kids to suffer through the pain of workouts for weeks or even months if you, as their coach/advisor, are already perfect. Since I’m not (yet) the pinnacle of human physical fitness, I have to set goals and strive to improve. I don’t mind letting the kids see me exhausted or struggling to get through a set of Russian Twists. When they see me improve as a result of my hard work and persistence, they’ll see that the workouts I have them do will really help them inch closer to their fitness goals if they also work hard and persist. In other words, I lead by example. I practice what I preach. I may ask the kids to endure the pains of cardio and/or strength training, but I’m suffering right alongside them. Not only does this inspire the kids to carry on with the workouts, but it helps to take away embarrassment from those who are really self-conscious about their fitness levels. I mean, how can you be embarrassed about yourself when your teacher is in as much pain as you are? Right?
It Ain’t All About Fitness
Learning how to endure physical hardship and then come back for more is necessary if you want to get into shape. That’s why I’m constantly telling my Active Club members our other motto, “It sucks. I hate it. Let’s do it.” They really hate it when I make them do windshield wipers, a type of ab exercise. What do I say to them when they complain about it? “It sucks. I hate it. Let’s do it!” I’ve said it enough times that the kids can now predict when I’m about to utter the motto, and parrot me as I begin saying it. My main goal though isn’t just for the kids to use the motto to help get them through physical training. I want them to apply the motto to every other aspect of their life. If they can get over the fact that they hate something, and do it anyway because it’s good for them, there will be no stopping them. Imagine informing a kid that she is performing poorly in your class, and instead of resisting after school tutoring, studying more, and/or doing extra credit work, she says, “It sucks. I hate it. Let’s do it!” And then she actually does all the things you tell her to improve! That is the REAL goal of any club I’m in charge of: to empower the kids with the right mental attitude which will carry them through any struggle in their lives.
Not into fitness at all?
So, what if you’re not into fitness? Like, not even a little. No big whoop. Regardless of what club you choose to join or start, the principles are the same. You’ll still get to do all of the following: get to know the kids, make them feel good about themselves, lead by example, stress progress over perfection, show them how to be patient and endure. My old site used to have a Lego Club, which was run by Doug Gage. Yes, the same Doug Gage I keep mentioning. I told you, he’s awesome. Anyhoo, I would sub for Doug at the Lego Club when he had to be in two places at once. It was an ingenious club because it required almost no work from the teacher in charge. When the club meeting began, the kids would pull out the Lego sets and build. That was it. Looking at the instructions, finding the pieces, and putting the sets together was so mesmerizing for the kids that I literally didn’t have to do anything else. This opened up so many opportunities for me to just talk to and interact with the kids. I’d even join in on occasion and help them out with certain sets. And just like Running Club or Active Club, I could praise the kids for anything they did whether it be the completion of an entire Star Wars Star Destroyer set, or something as small as being persistent in the search for a tiny, yet vital Lego piece. It was a simple yet very satisfying club for the kids and advising teachers. Most importantly, I still had the opportunity to apply all the principles of Running Club or Active Club… just without the fitness part.
So, Start A Club Already!
What are you waiting for? Get a club going or join one. It’ll bring you and the kids closer and provide the students with some valuable tools they’ll either need now or will need later on down the road. And if you manage to be a part of a club that will benefit other aspects of your life (in my case, physical fitness), then that’s even better. Anyhoo, stay tuned for more tips and posts on how to develop good relationships with students. If you’ve already got a good one for me, please comment away.