Young people spend much of their time exploring the world around them. Learning how to interact with people, understanding social mores and expectations, and trying to develop an autonomous identity are all vital parts of the maturing process.

This knowledge can come from a variety of sources, including peers, parents, celebrities, media, and teachers. The relationship between teacher and student is one of the most powerful and potentially life-altering relationships young people have. More structured time is spent in the classroom than in virtually any other environment. As such, teachers have an unparalleled opportunity to affect great personal growth and change, provided they understand the importance of their role and act accordingly.

“As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.”

Teacher and Child Psychologist Haim G. Ginott described the power all teachers possess when he said, “I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Ginott understood that teachers need to serve as role models for their students. Whether they realize it or not, young people put teachers on a pedestal. They look to their teachers for guidance. They notice the positive traits and behaviors and try to implement that behavior into their life. Unfortunately, they also notice the negative. Teachers have an innate position of authority in the eyes of their young students. A teacher’s words and deeds are immediately imprinted on the psychological design of the student. Realizing the vital role all teachers play is the first step in becoming the type of influence children need.

So, how can an elementary school teacher be that kind of positive influence? There are a variety of ways, but the first step is simply understanding a teacher’s role. A teacher is not a counselor; they will not be able to “save” troubled children or connect with each and every student. There are limits, and a teacher that understands those limits will avoid burning themselves out or creating situations in which success is impossible. That being said, however, there is a great deal that teachers can do.

Behavior Modification:

Young people spend much of their time trying to ascertain expectations and behave accordingly. They all have a fundamental need for approval, although that need might be expressed in a variety of ways.  Behaviorally, students often test limits to understand where lines need to be drawn. They will look to teachers to reinforce those limits consistently and fairly. Behavior will then be adjusted. These behavioral interventions will often leave a permanent imprint on the child’s psyche. Behavioral concerns addressed in front of the class may have an opposite effect on students. It is doubtful that real change will occur because the message of the intervention often gets lost within feelings of shame and even anger. Addressing concerns in private, however, gives the teacher a chance to strengthen their relationship with the child, clearly explain goals and expectations, and leave the student with a positive impression instead of a negative memory. Those are the types of interactions that will elicit real change.

Motivation and Encouraging Big Dreams:

In addition to trying to understand behavioral and societal expectations, young people are constantly trying to develop a sense of who they are and how they fit into the world. Once again, teachers can have a huge impact on the successful creation of this type of identity. Young people inherently have big dreams, and statements like, “I want to be the president of the United States,” or “I’m going to fly to the moon” are commonplace.

Students should dream big and think that anything is possible. Their entire lives are in front of them; the opportunities truly are limitless. Many of these dreams begin in the classroom. Unfortunately, those dreams are often snuffed out or trampled on before they even have a chance to begin. Students who are told they can’t do something at a young age will probably believe it for most of their lives. Accordingly, students that are taught to dream and work for those dreams will also likely carry that message with them into adulthood.

The message teachers instill in their classrooms has the ability to direct a child’s future. Tell them it is okay to have dreams that seem larger than life. Teach them the connection between hard work and success. Let them know that they are capable of anything. There is no telling what the future holds for the children sitting in any particular classroom. Every president or astronaut started out in an elementary school classroom. What if a teacher had told them their dreams were too big?

Facilitating a Connection Between the Classroom and the World:

Finally, students need to recognize the connection between what they are learning and the “outside world.” Learning should facilitate an understanding between knowledge and power. Whether it is the ability to utilize common math in everyday life, the capability of looking at the world with a critical eye, or simply the utilization of social skills outside the classroom, young people should understand that learning does not stop at the door.

Teachers that successfully prepare their students for inclusion and success in the outside world are those that develop connections that enable students to apply what they are learning. There should not be a gap between the classroom and life; it is all inclusive and each impacts the other. Students that understand this concept are better prepared to function and succeed in the outside world. One way teachers can do this is by providing scientific exploration opportunities, such as visiting a butterfly pavilion and incorporating a life cycle lesson.

A teacher’s job can seem overwhelming at times. How can one person possibly perform all the required functions of an educator, be a role model for their students, and inspire and motivate? The answer is simply one step at a time; one student at a time.

The relationship between teacher/student is one that is often remembered far into adulthood. Its impact is great, whether that be positive or negative. Students that are motivated and nurtured create beliefs and habits that allow them to successfully mature and integrate themselves into society. On the other hand, students that are shamed or belittled develop a negative attitude toward education; one that often carries over into other aspects of their lives.