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“I Don’t Care,” Part II: Introducing Ms. Mom

In my last post I introduced the problem of creating a classroom environment in which students care about their work. Today I would like to look at one successful approach, that of Ms. Mom.

Ms. Mom says: “These are all my children, my babies,” about her third graders. Hers, as you might imagine, is a hug-heavy classroom. Students unconsciously place their hands on her when she is nearby, as if for support. Ms. Mom says to a student: “I’m going to be honest with you, because we are family. Your work right now is not what it could be, and you know it and I know it.” She uses the words “love,” “family,” “son” and “daughter” as often as I say “pencil” or “book” or “addition.”

Ms. Mom is very giving, and all of her students feel this and relax in her affection, but she is also demanding. Wrapped up in her family talk you will often hear something like this: “Now, we are family, and that means that we can trust each other, and rely on each other. That means that we can trust each other to all get a 3 on that ELA test. We can trust that we are all getting our work done, in the classroom and at home. Because no member of my family is taking home a 2 this year.”

In other words, Ms. Mom creates an environment in which concentration, diligent reading and math preparation, and especially test scores, are part of the fabric of classroom harmony. Ms. Mom teaches through relationships, created through repeated use of the words “family” and “love” and through her obvious dedication. The children are made to understand that if they want to cultivate this relationship, then they need only work hard.

I was once observing Ms. Mom and wrote on my palm: Work = Love.

And do the children care? Absolutely. Without exception, every student shows real interest in their work, and real pride in their accomplishments. In the beginning of the year, they would work in order to show Ms. Mom and win her approval. This tendency subsided, however, as children internalized “work = love,” making it something private, a motivation particular to themselves.

Yet Ms. Mom’s technique scares me, as a beginning teacher, because I have seen it go wrong.

I was one of two beginning teachers last year. The other was a young man, like me, and he worked next door. He was a kind guy, with plenty of energy and dedication. He also tried to teach through relationships, attempting to build trust with his students and to rely on this trust to motivate them. Yet he simply did not have the experience to maintain this trust through the Hundred Thousand Moods of his students. Where Ms. Mom has an invisible arsenal of calming, soothing, deflecting and encouraging techniques, Mr. OtherMan could only repeat, with increasing meekness, “but I thought we were friends.” His students suffered.

We all build relationships with our students. But I think that Ms. Mom’s ability to galvanize her students with words like “love” and “family” has to be seen as the fruit of years and years of teaching. Beginning teachers, especially in their first two years, should not be embarrassed to use external motivators, such as prizes, certificates, stickers, etc. Perhaps we should view them as crutches to use while we build our own arsenals.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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