I just entered my 8th year of teaching and it has always been important for me to start the year by really understanding who my students are and the stories they come to my classroom with. So, from the first day of school, I dive into building relationships and creating a comfortable atmosphere for students. This is super important because it establishes open communication and they know whether they are struggling in life or English class, they are safe and encouraged to share and gain the support they need to be successful.
As a teacher, this trust that students start to build with me breaks down barriers of preconceived notions on both sides of the relationship and I can internally motivate them to reach their goals and teach them in the way that they need.
I do this by starting the year off with students writing me a letter titled “Three Things I Wish My Teacher Knew”. It has proved over and over again to be a light into my students' lives outside the classroom so that I can understand who they are as a person and how to reach and teach them best inside the classroom.
I begin the assignment with a model letter from myself to my students and tell them three things I wish they knew about me.
I start by introducing the expectations of the class, as well as establishing my support:
“First, I want you to know that I am here teaching English because I want to see you succeed. Not only do I wish to see you gain skills necessary to be a literary genius, I want these skills to help you in LIFE! Overall, this class might have days where it seems easy and fun, and other days it will be challenging and possibly scary (there’s a speech coming). But again, I am here because I want you to succeed. If I can tell you are taking steps to help yourself, work hard, and are trying your best, I will work my hardest to help you!”
I then acknowledge that I am a person, just like them, and know the realities of balancing many priorities:
“Next, I want you to know that I have a family. I am a real person who balances many priorities. I absolutely love all the roles I have in life, such as a mom, wife, teacher, sister, mentor, and so on. I have a daughter who is eight years old, and a son who is six (today is his birthday!). My son was here in the preschool classroom on campus last year and now is in Kindergarten and my daughter is in 3rd grade and loves to chat, dance and do gymnastics. I will be attending campus events, so you will most likely meet the fam. Remember, I am a real person, so if you see me in public it is okay to say ‘Hi, Mrs. Couture!’."
My third topic explains my hobbies and I end with the purpose of my letter:
“Let this letter serve two purposes: You now know a little more about your English teacher and you have a model on how to write your friendly style letter.”
In the directions to students, I offer ideas from which students can choose and I let them know that they can choose their own topics as well. I always let them know that what they write in their letter is for my eyes only. I let them know that if there is something going on that needs to be addressed with counselors that this is a safe place to write those needs and we can get them the help they need.
The goal is to create a safe place for students to express who they are and what makes them a unique individual.
Here are some sample quotes from students this year:
“I wish my teacher knew my ambitions. I come from a Hispanic family, filled with carpenters and skilled craftsmen… Surely my ancestors who had immigrated from Mexico has similar goals of power, fame, and fortune. My goals in life are to attend Harvard and trip major in Physics, World History and Political Science, and then intern in the Senate while attending law school at Georgetown University.”
“An important part of my life are my goals for this school year. I really want to be able to understand what we learn as well as pass this class!”
“I love doing anything that includes my family or my friends. I am outgoing and they motivate me to do my best no matter what I am doing or working on”.
“I want you to know that I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 7, and that I would consider this my biggest challenge in life. I am learning to balance everything new in life with diabetes, and I am getting better as time goes on.”
While reading each letter, I find it important to respond and let them know that I read every detail and that their experiences matter. I respond by offering comments in the margins of their letter, such as:
“Those are amazing goals! I know that you can get closer each day with hard work and determination!”
“That sounds like a fun hobby! Did you know there is a club on campus for that? I will connect you to the club sponsor”
“Wow, I am truly sorry. That sounds difficult and I am so thankful that you shared that with me.”
Upon returning letters to students I find right away that a closer connection has been made with each one of them, and this paves the way for open communication throughout the school year and leads me to teach them the way they need and deserve.
I highly recommend this activity with your students as a way to connect with each student in a unique way! Each year I assign this letter, I am reminded of how much I might miss about the lives of my students that walk in and out of my classroom each day. Taking the time to read and respond to the goals, successes and struggles of students not only lets them know that you care about them, but opens up a new way to teach and connect with your students on a deeper level.
Kristin Couture has been teaching for 8 years and is currently teaching freshmen and sophomore English. “As a teacher, my mission is to empower students to reach their full potential. This guides me every day in the classroom.”