Every year, it seems, I have at least one or two teachers say to me, within the very first weeks of school, “I just don’t know how you relate to them so well!”
I hit the 3 mark for the year today, which is surprising not just because we’re only 6 days in, but also because I didn’t have a particularly kind-to-kids day. The thing is, however, that I’m totally baller at relating to my particular demographic of student (that’s the Hispanic, non-reader kind, in case you’re wondering) despite my lack of common ground with them.
I feel that as adults, sometimes we just make our jobs harder than they truly are. And so, in the interest of helping teachers, parents, and just generally fellow Earthikins of middle school students, I have the following tips to offer. Attempt at your own leisure (and risk).
Be honest and real with them.
Don’t make shit up just to make shit up, okay? Even if it would be more comfortable and socially-acceptable to lie your butt off. I mean, I tell my students that I’m not a huge fan of the dress code, but that it’s a part of my job and I’m going to follow it because it’s the right thing to do, and the intentions are to focus on education, which I’m totally down with no matter what. Do they like that? Of course not. But it’s the truth and in a way, I think they begrudgingly appreciate it. They’re not tiny, soul-less demons, they’re tiny people. Treat them as such. The only caveat I’ll add to this is that if your lies serve a vital purpose, you’re allowed to put them out there. Just make them few and far between. And act like it’s no big deal. I mean, I still have students from years ago who honestly believe that the motion detector in the corner of the room is a camera. And that’s how it’ll stay.
Be open about yourself (with boundaries).
I’m not saying that you should tell them about your messy love life or the fact that you might have a warrant out in Tijuana due to a misunderstanding on spring break 10 years ago. Keep those skeletons in the closet. Preferably at home. And I’m definitely not saying that you should show them your non-existent belly-button. That’s weird. And actually happened once. What I am saying is that you should be willing to show them photos of your family and friends. Tell them your middle name, your favorite color, and the year you graduated high school. Use your own real-life experiences to enhance your interactions. Take your loved ones to their football games. Answer their questions. If nothing else, this will show that you care and maybe even help you find some deeply-buried commonalities to bond over. “You watch Cash Cab? I met Ben Bailey once, it was awesome!” Instant cool points (if the kid’s a nerd, that is). Just make sure that they know you’re still an adult and they’re not – so there are certain lines not to be crossed. They’re kids. They’re comfortable with boundaries, so they should stick to them if you’re firm.
Listen to their music and watch their shows.
This does not mean that you must like their music and shows, only that you must show an interest. Guys, I effing hate One Direction, and I hate that I don’t totally hate Justin Beiber as much as a 26 year-old should. I don’t pretend to love them, I just show that I have knowledge of them by saying things like, “Oh, but see, 1D isn’t actually a band, it’s just a group of guys all trying to sing a solo at the same time.” And they LOVE to defend their little heartthrobs. Even when it’s hopeless.
Invest in their lives.
Remember their pets’ names. Ask about their sister’s new baby. Go to their games, even if they aren’t at the school. Make sure that you recognize their successes, even if it’s outside of your little classroom (or home). One of my favorite (though admittedly a little judgy) quotes is “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is especially true for children of middle school age. Put in the time, and so will they.
Try to understand their world.
Take things a little beyond the whole entertainment thing and remember what it was like to be awkward, halfway through puberty, and think you’re a grown person. Also add to that the fact that they live in a very personal yet depersonalized world. Everyone can know your business on fbook but you may not even remember what a sunset looks like without an Instagram filter. It’s different. Even for me, and I grew up with computers. Kid Pix was the BOMB, am I right, 90s children? But it’s not the same anymore…no one ever goes looking for Carmen Sandiego or dies of dysentery, at least not in the US. They’re too busy hooking up over WOW.
Have an ego.
For real. This is not a joke, people. You need to think that you’re all that and a bag of potato chips. As you can tell from my multiple shout-outs to the 1990s in this post, I’m not exactly the epitome of cool. My students, however, don’t realize that I’m aware of this fact. I’m pretty vocal about how awesome I am, how they need to read more in order to be as awesome as me, and the fact that you honestly shouldn’t ever question my judgement – especially when I give you boy/girl advice. I’m the shit, in case you didn’t know. Which is why I can keep my cool when they’re flying off the handle.
If you’ve done all the above tips, then your kids are probably at the “wanting to impress you” stage because you are – as my coworker says – thebomb.com. And how do preteens/new teens impress someone? By making jokes and entertaining you. Laugh. It builds their confidence, proves that you’re a human being, and generally lightens your other burdens, too. Besides, they’re usually pretty damn funny. Also, make sure to laugh at yourself. Is it easy to laugh when you fall flat on your ass in front of 20 6th graders at the end of a “I expect better from you” rant? No. I would know. But what can you do? Karma’s a bitch with perfect comedic timing.
Own your faults.
This kind of goes along with laughing, because it involves a lot of laughing at yourself. I mean, I think the thing that blows other adults’ minds is that my students love me despite the fact that I’m a huge nerd. I tell them this. They know I like reading and Star Wars and Star Trek and grammar and school. They also know that I “don’t play well with others” and often prefer the company of my dogs to other human beings. Let’s not even talk about the time I got sent to the office for skipping lunch or the fact that I’m deathly afraid or water fowl. When kids realize that you have faults and can admit them, maybe even laugh at them like I mentioned, they see you as an ally and not an enemy.
Admit when you’re wrong.
Especially about them. Do you know how many adults will realize that they were wrong and not correct themselves because – so what, it’s just a kid, and their ego is more important? Too many. And yeah, I have a chip on my shoulder about it, what gifted kid doesn’t? But I will say that four years ago, I made a poor judgement call, accused a student of misbehavior because it seemed right, and turned out to be totally wrong. I admitted it and apologized to him in front of the principal who was handling the discipline because I felt like it was right. And you know what? I’m pretty sure that turned him around at our school. Which makes me more sad than anything else, because how many times have adults laid blame on this kid if that’s what made a difference?
Show them respect.
This, dear friends, is the cornerstone of my success with the kiddos. I respect them and their choices, even when they’re the wrong ones. I firmly believe that the single most damaging occurrence to a relationship with a kid is the introduction of condescension. No, they don’t have our life experience and they’re not yet old enough to vote, but they’re still valuable members of our society. They have ideas. Good ones. And at the age I work with, they’re starting to take those ideas and run with them, to assert their independence. Of course, not all ideas are good, but if you have the right relationship with them, you can have a good conversation about why they shouldn’t get a Miley Cyrus haircut. And they’ll listen, which is the important part. Plus, when they draw you pictures of what ‘respect’ looks like, their depictions of you are eerily accurate.
So I hope that sheds some light on my ability to “get” preteens and teenagers. A light that isn’t a neon sign flashing “I never grew up.” Although I might have one of those somewhere, too. 😉