by Hal Urban

    I was a social studies teacher in a public high school for 36 years. I loved every minute of it! Well, at least almost every minute. In all honesty, my teaching career started out wonderfully, and got better each year.  I’m convinced that the key was good relationships. I was taught on my first day of graduate school in education that, “If you can reach ‘em, you can teach ‘em.” Starting with my student teaching, I put a lot energy into reaching my students, of making that all-important personal connection with them. 

    My #1 goal at the beginning of each school year was to create a Caring Community in each of my five classes. The reason was simple, and really nothing more than common sense. If the teacher has a relationship of mutual respect with his students, and the students have a relationship of mutual respect with each other, a lot more teaching and learning will go on. And there will be very few behavior disruptions.

Making Students Feel Welcome

    It all started on the first day of school, right after the opening bell. I stood at the doorway and welcomed each student into class the same way I would welcome a friend into my home. Most of the students appeared a little awkward socially. Most of them looked at the floor instead of making eye contact with me. Most of them didn’t smile because they didn’t see me smiling at them. Most of them mumbled when I introduced myself and asked for their names. And most of them gave me a wimpy limp-wristed handshake that felt a little like a dead fish.

    I taught both academic lessons and life lessons, and knew right away that the first life lesson would be about the importance of good social skills. After getting everyone in the room I asked why so many of them appeared to be uncomfortable when I greeted them. They told me it threw them off because they’d never been greeted at the door by a teacher before. And I just happened to be the biggest (6’5”) teacher most of them ever had. So we spent the first fifteen minutes of the school year talking about good social skills – eye contact, smile, speak clearly, give a firm handshake. I let them know that I would be at the door every day, so they wouldn’t ever be surprised again. It was a completely different story on day two and every day after that for the rest of the year.

    Here are some of the benefits of greeting students before every class (or at the beginning of the day if you’re an elementary teacher):

1. The teacher literally makes personal contact with each student before any other type of  learning goes on.
2. It’s personal – it makes the students feel welcome and that the teacher cares about them.
3. It has a build-up effect – each time a teacher and student greet, it builds a stronger bond  between them.
4. There’s a “transfer of energy.”  What I liked most about being a teacher was the energy of  the kids. It’s our job
to help them use all that energy in positive ways. That’s a big part of  what character education is. I told them that I loved their energy, and was like a  rechargeable battery standing at the door. If I got thirty or more “positive charges” at the  beginning of class I’d be a much more “charged up” and energetic teacher. Some of them  thought I was kidding at first, but they soon learned that I was completely serious.
5. The greetings before class take only a few minutes.
6. It reinforces good social skills on a daily basis. “Eye contact,” was a regular reminder.
7. It’s FUN! If someone asked me at 3:00 pm, “What was the highlight of your day?,” about  95 percent of the time the answer would have been, “Greeting the kids at the door before  class.”

Manners and the Golden Rule

    We spent the remaining 35 minutes of that first class talking about how we were going to treat each other. I began by showing them a copy of U.S. News & World Report. The cover story was titled, “IN YOUR FACE: Whatever Happened to Good Manners?” So I asked them a series of questions. Here’s a condensed version of them and the answers the students and I agreed upon:

Q. – Why would a national news magazine feel the need to do a cover story on manners?

A. – Because manners in our country have been declining for many years.

Q. – What does it mean to have “good manners?”

A – To show consideration for others; to be respectful.

Q. – What is the Golden Rule?

A. – Treat other people the way you’d like them to treat you – with respect.

Q. – Does everyone win when people treat each other with mutual respect?

A. – YES.

Q. – Would it be a good idea if we all agreed today to treat each other with mutual respect 

       while in this class?

A. – YES.

    They did agree to do just that, and they honored their commitment. I’ll always remember the first time I did this. A girl in one of my senior classes said, “Thank you for doing this, Mr. Urban. I wish all the teachers would do it.” I was a little surprised, and asked her to explain a little further. She said, “So many rude things go on in other classes, and the teachers never do anything about it. This is so much better because you’ve let us know what your expectations are.” This evoked a memory of taking Sociology 101 in college. The professor started the first class by writing this on the board:

Principle #1: People Behave as They’re Expected to Behave

A Foreign Point of View

    In the 1990s a young man named Henning Austmann, an exchange student from Germany, transferred into my U.S. History class after spending the first semester with another teacher. He was polite and full of positive energy, and fit right in. After only four days in my class, he decided to share something with me. After the other students left for lunch, he approached me with a big smile and said, “You know, Mr. Urban, you are a very lucky teacher!” I did feel lucky just to be a teacher in a good school district, but I didn’t think that was what he meant. So I asked him, “What makes me so lucky?” He said, “Let’s put it this way: I take six classes at this school, and the students in third period U.S. History are by far the most polite. You’re very lucky to have such polite students in this class.” I smiled, and told him, “Henning, they are very polite, but I teach five classes, and the students in all of them are polite.” He looked surprised, and said, “Wow! You’re luckier than I thought you were.” I was, indeed, lucky to be a teacher.