Sheryl Sandberg popularized the idea of “leaning in,” and it’s a phrase my husband and I find ourselves using often, albeit not in the exact way that Sandberg meant. Sandberg discusses gender equality while giving advice (largely to upper middle class women), but we talk about this concept differently. For us, it’s the idea of having to actively move toward something. We talk about this seriously, like when we talk about leaning in to difficult conversations or pushing ourselves to do something outside of our comfort zones. (Our learning in isn’t always so serious, though. When Sully leans in to his stuffed fox chair, he prompts us to refer to the chair as Sheryl Sandfox). So when I came across this Tweet, I was immediately drawn in: “I’ve never gotten to know a student better and liked him less as a result. Oftentimes the best way to push past our frustration with someone is to lean into the relationship more. It turns out that connecting is an investment in our own wellbeing as much as it is in the student’s” (@fastcrayon).
I’d be shocked to find anyone who could claim they’ve never worked with or dealt with someone they found difficult. One primary basis for conducting group work in schools is to build the individual’s capacity for collaboration and communication so that students are more skillful in these areas. I’d love it if those efforts meant that every adult had great communication skills, but that definitely isn’t true. There are many days on which my own skills lack, and I find myself asking whoever I’m speaking with, “Did that make sense?” Of course, it’s not just word choice but tone, pace, and body language that complicate effective communication. And communication is foundational to relationships and our ability to lean into them and try to get to know someone better. What was true for me as a teacher was that I communicated best with students whose communication style was one I felt deeply familiar with (potentially because it was like mine or perhaps because it was reminiscent of a friend). I think some of my biggest teaching roadblocks came because I hadn’t figured out how to effectively talk to, and get to know, particular students. And it’s much easier for me to see (and say) now that I needed to do more work in those areas; I needed to lean into those relationships and build them up more. I love the first sentiment behind what @fastcrayon is saying: Getting to know someone more helps us empathize. Good teaching comes from a place of empathy, and it’s rooted in kindness (and I don’t mean being nice so much as being deeply considerate). I become a better teacher, and person, every day that I develop empathy for more people and situations. When I’m able to build relationships with my students or colleagues, the work becomes both better and more rewarding. Just like this Tweet’s author, I’ve never been disappointed by trying to get to know someone better, most particularly my students. Seeing them more clearly and with more depth is a profound teaching act. Yes, it helps us to help them more academically, but I think it’s far more important that it helps us validate whoever they are and tell them they’re enough. We develop our own humanity by investing our time and attention in our students and in other people that come into our lives. This isn’t to say you need to give great amounts of time to get to know every single person you see in a day, but it is to say that telling someone else their value isn’t predicated on a test score or a game won is the kind of wholehearted work that is necessary to make relationships, classrooms, schools, and communities of every size work. This kind of work starts with a single step: Who can you identify who doesn’t yet seem to understand their intrinsic value? How can you lean into that relationship and begin? If you’re looking for ideas or want to talk out a particular relationship dilemma, let us know! Kris and I would love to help. Image courtesy of Kris Blais