A few weeks ago, I attended my 30th high school reunion. As the event grew closer, I found myself filled with feelings that took me right back to those perilous, judgy teen-age years. I did not enjoy high school and I found myself shaking my head wondering why I made the decision to be there that night.
When I arrived at the event, a man introduced himself to me with a handshake, “Hi. I’m Tony Allen*.” I looked him in the eye, recognized the shadows of a teenage boy within his expressions and said, “Oh, hi. I remember you!” We had a nice conversation and I started to feel better about the evening ahead.
Several hours later when the event was ending, Tony came up to me again. He leaned over and in a quiet voice he said, “I just wanted you to know that you were the only person here tonight who remembered me. It really meant a lot and I just wanted to say thank you.” We leaned in and each of us began to reflect on our difficult high school memories, as we fought back tears.
In the book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown wrote, “We are all people — just people.” We all want to be seen. We all want to be remembered. We all want to belong. But for so many reasons, people feel left out, excluded, alienated. Human connection is the antidote to those toxic feelings. Take a few moments to reflect on your life. I bet you can remember the moments you felt seen. I know I can:
- My first crush who asked if he could sit next to me at a birthday party.
- A teacher who wrote the words “is a great writer” after the end of my name on a creative writing assignment.
- My first soccer coach who ran along with our team at practice, looked me in the eye and said, “I know you can run faster than that.”
- My mentor in grad school who referred to my ideas as “innovative.”
- My art teacher in high school who invited me to show my paintings in our campus gallery.
- A student who came to my office hours during grad school and said, “I don’t learn anything from our professor. I only learn when I’m in class with you.”
- That same professor who referred to me as a “natural teacher.”
- Every single time a person mentions me in a Tweet, a blog post, a presentation as someone who has influenced their teaching.
Take a moment and reflect on your life and identify those moments another person saw you. What impact did they have on how you viewed yourself? What impact did they have on your future path?
As a teacher, you regularly have the the opportunity to give this gift to your students. And, trust me, you have students in your courses that need that validation to stay in the course and keep going.
Decades ago, the work of Laura Rendón showed that college students from minoritized groups who feel validated by an educator (professor, counselor, etc.) are more likely to develop as independent learners and persist in college. Yet, in higher education we still point our finger at our students when confronted with low retention and success rates. The non-cognitive aspects of learning matter. When people feel left out, they leave. That is one of the reasons black and Latinx students decide to leave STEM majors at twice the rate of white students.
When the non-cognitive aspects of learning are ignored in college courses, we create barriers that prevent students from succeeding, especially those who regularly experience discrimination. You can change this. It is in your power to be kind and create a classroom climate that welcomes and supports all students. And if you teach online, this means cultivating a welcoming environment that is rich with your warm human presence, values the differences that your students bring to the table, and provides you with opportunities to get to know your students as people with complex stories, as opposed to names on a screen.
*Not his real name.