From Keeping the Faith in Education: The Magic of the Journey by Paul Nyberg

Teaching is about relationships. It is about extending your hand to a student, asking him or her to trust you and to come along on a journey. That is teaching. And as in all life, there are many relationships: forced, submissive, joyful, hurtful. The best of these relationships are built on trust, respect, communication, and love. Every teacher has their own method for creating a personal brand of relationship that best suits their style and personality. I bet most are willing to defend these as tried and true practices – and I would agree with them, at least most.
It is the beauty and magic of education when all these different students (each with a different relationship and journey with their teachers and classes) experience something unique and feel a part of a greater whole. When they know their voices are heard and that each voice matters to the one at the front of the class, so many things are possible. When the mojo is working and everything is firing on all cylinders you have these experiences, both student and teacher, that stay with you all your life. It is magical!
To meet me in the hallway today, one would most likely consider me “old school.” A bit of chalk dust on my face and hands, gray hair, and wearing a necktie of all things! Yet the fact that I may be chronologically challenged does not keep me from being jazzed, and a bit frightened, every time a new year begins. I love seeing the students, hearing their stories, listening to (some of) their music, and ultimately beginning a new journey. The life, the hope, the promise that each year brings keeps me young at heart and fills my soul with the anticipation of possibilities.
My first connection with students is often through music, music I play during a group worksheet time or when students are working on their homework. Meghan, a ninth grader at the time, and I began having before- and after-school chats about the music I was playing and the music she was listening to.Soon, she began to burn CDs for me to listen to, mostly new artists she was following; it was a great exchange across generational lines.Through this exchange Meghan and I were building a relationship, a friendship.Our conversations about music and pop culture continued throughout Meghan’s years at our school, and over the course of time she and I moved into deeper conversations about life, struggles with her parents, and the great difficulties happening within the world.Today, Meghan is a university graduate off volunteering in far-flung parts of the world. She is brilliant, and she is a friend of mine.All teachers have stories like this. Shared experience within a classroom setting is remarkably powerful for students and teachers alike.
Today, I find more and more students unwilling to participate in these shared experiences. They don’t want to unplug from their world long enough to experience what is going on around them.By inserting their earbuds and plugging into their own world, they are tuning me, and their fellow classmates, out. I certainly can “make” them share the experience of listening to my music playing, but this really defeats the purpose.It is no longer an open invitation for relationship.
So in light of the relationships, the beauty, the promise and hope, why does it feel as if it is becoming more and more difficult to make the magic happen? The answer, I am afraid, lies at the feet of technology.I speak specifically of the programs, apps, and social media that are designed to engage the human brain and then not let go.I am no Ludite. I do (slowly) embrace technology in the classroom.I understand that it is here to stay and will only increase in ways we can barely imagine. But let’s be honest with one another and say out loud that this technology has created a group of very distracted learners.These learners lose themselves in the screen and lose their ability to be fully alive and engaged in the real world around them.
The biggest challenge that I face as a teacher in today’s classroom is being able to create the relationships and trust needed to go on this journey called education. I know the challenges the kids face – gangs, drugs, personal violence, broken families – are exponentially worse than any I faced in school. However, I feel that if a young person has a strong relationship with a trusted adult then his or her chances of being more successful in navigating the challenges of the world increase dramatically. In spite of the drama and seeming lack of interest, teenagers want to know we care. Within us all there is this need and desire to be validated and connected to one another–our souls and spirits are nourished when this happens.However–and here is the rub–it is now more difficult than ever to cultivate these meaningful relationships in which students know I care about them.Students are so plugged in to and distracted by devices that it is hard to get their attention long enough for me to let them know I care, long enough to build the needed trust.
Our school went to open cellphone use three years ago. Teachers decide the extent of phone use in their own classrooms. We went one-to-one iPads this year. I think everyone involved will agree that it has been more difficult than most of us thought it would be. Yes, some students are doing wonderful, creative, brilliant things; yet many others have racked up more hours playing games and surfing the web than anyone thought possible. The iPads are a wonderful tool and in the hands of a motivated learner the sky is the limit. Unfortunately most students are not always very motivated, especially when a new post awaits them on Facebook. My heart breaks as I have watched many of these wonderful “salt of the earth” students lose themselves day after day into the web, my hope of making a connection with them greatly diminished. I have no answers, only questions and observations from someone closer to the end of his vocation than the beginning.
I have faith in kids. I have faith in education. As a man of wisdom told me many times, “The only thing certain in life is that things are going to change.” I know this and I accept this. The challenge for us all will be to find new ways to connect with our students to create relationships and bonds that allow the magic to happen.

Read more from Keeping the Faith in Education.