On Satudays I volunteer as an instructor for a program that provides free swim lessons to families in need within the Chapel Hill/Carborro community. This semester I have started working with a sweet six-year-old boy who has autism. While it’s not always the case, autism spectrum disorder is often characterized by difficulties with social interaction, impairments in joint attention (in simpler terms, sharing one’s interests with others), and repetitive behaviors. My goals for this semester are a little different than those of other swimmers that I have worked with and we are in the process of taking baby steps. The first of which is having this little boy become comfortable with the idea of getting into the water.
This past Saturday we sat on the pool deck for the majority of the hour playing in the puddles and moving a little shark toy around on the pavement. By the end of the hour, feet were on the surface of the water and splashing (the closest he has ever been to voluntarily being in the pool). This may seem minimal but to this little boy’s mother and me, it was a huge milestone! The pool can be scary, especially for someone who has autism and is presented with a new activity where there is a break in routine and a lack of control over the environment. Upon acknowledging this, I’ve shifted my priorities to striving to keep his attention, even for just a few seconds, and above all other goals for the afternoon, to get into his world.
Shouldn’t this be our goal when teaching? As simple as my times with this little boy are, it reminds me of such an important goal within the education setting: relating to students and connecting below a surface level. These circumstances and the experience of teaching swimming is vastly different from instructing within a classroom, but the same principles and the importance of relating to a child still pertains.
Looking back, my favorite k-12 teachers, and even college professors, are the ones who I have gotten to know on a personal level and those who genuinely strive to get to know me. While this might look like sitting on the ground with a young student and playing with a toy or engaging in a class activity, it could also look like asking an older student about future plans and providing guidance for attaining these goals. According to an article titled, “3 Ways to Make Meaningful Connections With Your Students,”
As teachers, it’s important for us to understand that there is so much more to students than the life they lead in class, and it is important to show interest in a student outside of the day’s homework.
This article also recommends using the first few minutes of class to engage in casual conversation, attending student’s sporting and after-school activities, and being available upon student request. These are examples of how a teacher may relate best to students, establish trust, and build a relationship outside of the classroom. This might seem silly but looking back on my education, having teachers who genuinely cared and invested in my life has made all of the difference, shaping me into who I am today.
Thinking about these personal acts of relating to students reminded me of a video that I saw while scrolling through Facebook earlier this week. This viral video is of a teacher, Mr. White, who has created a unique handshake with each of his fifth grade students. While this may seem trivial, you can see the smiles and joy that it brings to each of these students as they do their 10-second secret handshake with their teacher. Mr. White references the first student he made a handshake with and how this has changed the way that he interacted with the students, faculty, and volunteers at his school,
“Once I saw how simple, but how powerful it was to her, I thought it would be so cool to have for an entire class (then moving to other educators, faculty, and students in other grades)”
It’s the little things, like a simple handshake, that allow us to bond with students and get into their worlds! This should be our goal as educators!