Recently, as I was standing in line to purchase a Christmas gift for my granddaughters, a vibrant blonde kept turning around to look at me. She seemed familiar, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when she blurted out, “Is your first name Ellen?”
I nodded. Eagerly she asked if I’d taught at Glenbard West. I nodded again. “Oh, Mrs. Ljung, you were my English teacher!” Her enthusiasm caught the attention of clerks and other shoppers as she told me her maiden name, resurrecting my memory of this delightful honors student. Her gusto pleased me, and I realized how central relationship-building had been to my teaching. When we try to estimate how many students I’ve taught over the years, the numbers blur. Some took three of my classes at West, while others I only knew for a semester. The figure hovers between 2500 and 3000, so sometimes the memories of an individual are slow to return. But the pleasure, the human connection – that’s what made teaching so special to me.
I tried to be real for my students as well. Photographs of my family filled my room, as did rocks from our kayaking journeys, artwork, and treasures from travel. Students knew when each grandchild was born. They knew my husband from pep rallies, Faculty Follies, and prom. When my grandson, now a high school senior, visited me as a toddler, my students showed him around, and he talked about the “school for big kids” for months afterward.
Coming to recognize the way the culture prevented my gay and lesbian colleagues from having that kind of relationship with their students began my activism for inclusiveness and safe space. In hindsight, I realize that had I been a lesbian, I, too, would not have been out, but I’ve come to understand that the culture deprived not only those colleagues but also any students who themselves were closeted in any way. That injustice fueled my activism.
Highly effective teachers tend to know their students well enough to figure out how to reach them more. I believe that teachers who let students know them as individuals, with lives outside the classroom, build those relationships better. Boundaries are important and many require more privacy than I do, but I believe human connections require a two-way street.
I hope that relationship-building made me a more effective teacher. I know it made teaching more fulfilling for me. In August of 2011, having avoided Facebook for years, I finally made a personal page because we kept hearing how necessary a FB page was for our glass art business. Over the years our business page has shown limited impact, but the personal page led to reconnecting with so many former students! One wrote, “Yay FINALLY!!!!” and another, “Hath hell frozen over, Ellen Ljung on Facebook!” Both were students I knew well, but many others showed up over the years, writing comments on my timeline, resurrecting memories, filling me with gratitude.