June 2, 2015
What Students Want
Teacher empathy supports student growth, confidence.
It all comes down to people, doesn’t it?
You may remember Ramona Quimby as the curious, imaginative girl whose kindergarten experience is brought to life in Beverly Cleary’s children’s book, Ramona the Pest. Ramona’s thoughts and actions suggest that she is a highly creative child who has a hard time conforming to the mold. Her parents don’t particularly understand her, and she is prone to outbursts. She tends to get in trouble because an adult has not understood her reasoning, which is often much more profound than it appears on the surface. The pattern of not being understood seems to drive Ramona into the only method of protest that she knows: tantrums and anger. This is a common experience for young, creative children.
Children who are divergent thinkers often don’t understand themselves until they are understood by a perceptive adult. Ramona is not sure how she feels about kindergarten until her teacher, Miss Binney, responds kindly and knowingly to Ramona as a student. She recognizes the importance of Ramona’s intense imagination, and is flexible and empathetic enough to affirm this dimension of the girl’s identity. In Miss Binney’s presence, Ramona is more comfortable in her own skin.
It is said over and over again that Ramona wants to be good. She wants to please Miss Binney. She doesn’t conform perfectly, but the energetic young kindergartener tries hard. Within the context of schoolwork, Miss Binney allows her to express the creativity that simply cannot be repressed. For example, she allows Ramona to draw little faces inside of her Q’s when she practices printing. Creative children need such latitude of self-expression. Adults that value their creative thinking characteristics are lifelines.
At one point, Ramona is reprimanded for pulling a girl’s hair and becomes convinced that Miss Binney no longer loves her. This is it for Ramona, and she’s not sure she can return to school. Without Miss Binney’s love, she doesn’t feel like herself; she feels like a bad girl, an outcast. As a five-year-old, she can’t quite distinguish between a teacher not agreeing with her actions but still liking her as a person. It is only when Miss Binney reaches out and writes her a special letter that she is convinced that her teacher does indeed love her and she can go back to school without shame. When the relationship becomes whole again, Ramona’s comfort and confidence returns.
Ramona’s experience reflects the experience of many educators. The teacher-child relationship is key. Children, especially those who are different in some way (highly sensitive, intense, creative, intellectually gifted) are desperate for adults who understand them and see them as they are from the basis of their strengths. Even more, they are desperate to be paired with educators who let them express these strengths in their daily diet of academic work.
However, like Ramona Quimby, sensitive children can easily misinterpret teachers’ words or actions. When I taught second grade, a student’s mother came to me very upset because her daughter was convinced I did not like her. I was distraught. I genuinely loved and cared for all of my students. How could this be? Maybe I didn’t call on her enough or perhaps it was because of something I had inadvertently said. In a very difficult conversation with the mother, I asked how I could fix the problem. This was a girl who loved to be helpful, and I wondered if she would respond well if I were to ask her to come and be my special helper after school each week. The mom was enthusiastic about this idea, so I proposed it to the student. She was delighted, and this turned the situation around.
Did I ever dislike the student? Never. Did she feel that I disliked her? Yes. Was it my job to fix it? Absolutely. Children respond well to genuine love. By deliberately expressing this love in a way that she could understand—tying my invitation to her interest in helping—she felt it again from me, her teacher.
In his recent book, Creative Schools (Viking, 2015), Sir Ken Robinson boiled education down to the same essence. “. . . [T]he heart of education is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Everything else depends on how productive and successful that relationship is. If that is not working, then the system is not working” (p. 71). If we find ourselves in an uncomfortable teacher-student (or parent-child) relationship, it’s important to try something different. There’s always a new idea available that might shake things up for the better. It may be as simple as changing our perspective, or writing a supportive note.
As this school year winds to a close and you reflect on the past nine months, what has worked for you in creating strong relationships with your children or students?
When you have taken time to acknowledge and engage a child’s strengths or interests, has this had a positive effect?
Cleary, B. (2013). Ramona the pest. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Robinson, K. (2015). Creative schools. New York, NY: Viking.