Being Present with Students


When I first started my career in 1991, I didn’t imagine that I’d leave before retirement age. I had visions of leaving while young enough to enjoy traveling, yet old enough to enjoy a monthly retirement income to support my lifestyle. As it generally happens in life, we can only see as far ahead into the unknown future as the headlights on the car we’re traveling in to get us there. Since I began in public school, I’ve done time in a private school, a charter school, with Homebound students, and private kids that I’ve tutored, ending up back in public school, but at a different grade level.

It doesn’t seem to matter the venue, the needs of the students are the same. Regardless of the age, the socioeconomic status of the family, or the subject that the student is struggling with, in my experience, it simplifies to being present with the student. Any praise, suggestion, teaching, or learning must stem from a base of trust. That trust is built from rapport. There’s many ways to develop rapport with students, but the way I know of is to be present.

Kids are used to adults being preoccupied with other life situations. They might be used to being told to wait until the parent is off the phone, until they arrive at their destination, until they’re alone, or until the other parent arrives home. Patience is certainly something we all need develop if we are to live life with a little less angst, but being present for students is different.

When I first meet a student, I face them, keep eye contact, I don’t have anything in my hands, and I don’t allow myself to be distracted by others in the room. I give them my complete attention. I ask questions, and listen to their answers. If I don’t understand, I ask them to explain. I might thank them for sharing or answering my question. I might praise them for their ideas and thoughts, offering validation that they’re not alone in struggling in math or having trouble with a teacher. I ask them what they like, what helps them learn, what is hard for them, what they’re interested in doing after graduation from high school, all in the attempt to understand them, not in wanting to be their friend or trying to get close to their parents. I’m genuinely interested in who they are as a person.

It’s that kind of “being present” that kids pick up on. For some of them, it might be one of the first times that they’ve been “heard” and validated. Once I begin working with a student one-on-one, that rapport only deepens. I ask about other things going on in their lives besides school. I give them suggestions on how to solve a problem with another student or a teacher or their parent. Sometimes I get them to commit, verbally, to try something different, then I make a point to ask them about it the next time I see them.

Besides my novels and poem collections available on my website, I also have classroom materials:

As a teacher or parent, how present are you when you’re with your student? Is this a habit you can develop?