Being able to impact students requires proximity. With a busy school day, grading papers, prepping for classes and staying on top of my other roles at school, it seemed like I didn’t have the capacity to spend time to develop the relational connections that I wanted to have.
In my student teaching experience, my cooperating teacher would actually lock his door and hide from students if they came by. I didn’t want to be like that. But that was how I started my first year. Eventually, I swung open the door. I started an art/lunch club of sorts with 5-10 kids and opened my room up for students before and after school most days.
Besides the obvious benefit of offering that time to help students who were behind or needed extra teaching, it also led to some great community and conversations. I can recall multiple times where students asked me questions that led to me sharing about my own faith experience or helping another student with questions about their faith. Often the better, more impactful times were when I was with one or two students who had opened up to me with questions or wanting to talk about something going on in their life. I remember having a student wanting to stay after class through his lunch because I was the first teacher to notice he was not okay and he was experiencing suicidal depression. Another student who had very little church experience learned I was one of the high school Bible Club sponsors so he started coming in each week to ask deep and tough questions he had about faith and Jesus as the group read through the book “Crazy Love” together. When he was a junior in college he asked me to be part of his baptism service after he had placed his faith in Christ. I don’t think I would have had as many of these opportunities pop up if I didn’t already have this open door policy.
On the other side, this open door environment did cause me to create some much needed boundaries. It forced me to create more of a balanced approach in my time as it relates to my availability to spend my free time with students. I still allow and encourage students to come work or eat their lunch in my room, but now I allow myself space if I need to get caught up on something urgent instead of feeling like I needed to be 100% engaged with a student. I also switched my scheduling to twice a week where students could come in and work after school or just come to hang out and talk. It helped me be able to be fully intentional on those days knowing I had other days after school to myself to have that mental break or time to catch up.
There are a couple of other places I have been learning about creating relationships with students at school: lunch duty, detention duty, and coaching! I did not seek out these opportunities for this reason (as my family grew, getting the extra income these roles offered was part of my motivation), but I quickly found that the job required very little of me and I had plenty of opportunity to talk to students. So I leaned into that. I focused on engaging in conversations and getting to know students I didn’t already know, and growing those relationships I already had. What I loved the most was how God used my own story in my first coaching job. I was able to do something I enjoyed to be able to spend time with the students on the team. The major difficulty with coaching was the extra time, but it didn’t require much more of me than that. Half of the job was running with them and encouraging/motivating them while we were on the trail. I was able to run with different groups of runners each day and have these long conversations because what else do they have to do but talk to their coach? There was also something about running or practicing with my athletes that let them know I was in it with them and they could trust me.
My advice to teachers who wish to create greater connections with students to have eternal impact is to look for the opportunities in your school day, places where you can be intentional with your students, and meet them where they are—to get to know them, answer questions or when they are at a crossroads in their life. Be sure to keep a good balance so you don’t stretch yourself too thin, but remember that God wants to use you to point them to Christ and His love. It is such a privilege to have these impactful conversation opportunities with the students in the moment.