have a bond because at a crucial point in her family’s
life, I took any resources I could find to help her
We must make sure that we’re helping to develop
the whole child. Academically things may be great,
but what’s going on outside school? What are your
needs, and how can we connect you to services to
help you become better equipped to succeed?
Students in difficult circumstances some-
times won’t ask for help, or will even resist
it. How can teachers reach out if a student
Many young people are very guarded about their
emotions. They don’t let you in right away. Many of
them opened up to adults when they were younger,
and the adults either took advantage of them emotionally or physically or just weren’t there. So many
young people have adults that come in and out of
their lives that the teacher is the only person who’s
caring and offering healthy love—notice I said
I tell teachers that persistence overcomes resis-
What’s the most important thing a teacher
tance. They’ll complain that they’re having a hard
time getting to know a kid. I’ll say, keep trying the
key; one day you’ll have the right key. Don’t give up.
I often suggest that teachers go to the neighborhood
playground or the Laundromat—go to where those
students are comfortable in their own communities.
If it’s not safe for them to go alone, I’ll go with them.
Students will often say, “Man, last night Principal
Thomas-EL did a drive-by!”
As we keep persisting, there’s a reverse influence
in which students influence us in a very powerful
way. They teach us to have humility; they teach
us to really teach with care and passion and love
because they choose to be with us. They make the
choice to be under our influence.
can do to convince a child, “I believe in you.”
That’s the crucial question every teacher will have to
address at some point. The first thing a teacher must
do is develop a relationship with that child so he or
she understands that you will be there for him—no
matter what, you’ll be there tomorrow. That’s why
teacher retention is so important. Successful schools
have teachers who are there every year, principals
who are there every year. That doesn’t mean 35 or
40 years, but you need to be there more than a year
or two for young people to know that you will be
part of their lives.
Make sure the student you’re trying to reach has
meaningful participation in school. Students need to
feel they matter in the classroom. You can’t allow a
kid to hide. Even if you think he’s going to answer
the question wrong, still ask the question because
struggling is learning.
Teachers need to share with students about their
own lives. Many young people have this belief that
teachers are born on some other planet, that we
came down on a spaceship and never had to deal
with any struggles. Children need to know that we’re
human beings and we have feelings. When they look
at us, they should see themselves.
I have white teachers who will say, “How do I
get a black kid or a Latino kid to understand that
although I may not look like them, I’m here for
them?” I say, “The only thing you need to do is tell
that student, ‘I will be here tomorrow—and although
I may look different, my heart is the same and my
heart is here to teach you.’ ”
Finally, it’s more important for students to respect
you than to like you. We all want students to like us,
but students can like you and not do the work you
assign. You want students to like being in your
presence, but you should never sacrifice respect. It’s
difficult to teach anyone anything if they don’t
respect you or don’t love you. I tell my teachers to
adopt the philosophy that they love their students
before they ever meet them. When you care about
someone, you can teach them anything. EL
Salome Thomas-EL is principal of Thomas Edison
Charter School in Wilmington, Delaware. Naomi Thiers
is an associate editor at Educational Leadership.
““Two things you want students to experience very day in school are rigor and joy.