Sunday, May 3, 2015

Interview with Brian Wyzlic

Michigan Reading Association hosts an amazing conference each March. This year they also had one of the best - if not the best - kick-off celebrations to begin the conference. The brainchild of Colby Sharp, there were Ignites and lip-sync karaoke contests to begin our weekend. Fortunately, even if you were not at MRA, you can still hear the brilliant Ignite presentations that began our weekend of learning. Colby has organized a blog tour where they are sharing one Ignite per blog and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Brian Wyzlic gave an Ignite on one of my absolute favorite topics - relationships in the classroom. Before sharing Brian’s wonderful presentation, I wanted to ask him a couple of questions.

My questions are in black, Brian's answers are in green. 

Brian, first of all, could you explain to everyone what you teach and how long you’ve been in teaching?
Certainly, Katherine. I teach high school English and math to an awesome group of students. This is my 8th year teaching.

I know that you believe relationships with your students are a critical part of your teaching. How did you come to that belief?
I was actually just thinking about this the other day, before I knew this interview was coming. It goes back to my high school creative writing teacher, Mr. Hebestreit at Livonia Churchill High School. I remember sitting in his classroom, thinking how great it felt to be there -- like he actually genuinely cared about me as an individual. Like I mattered to him. Then I looked around the room, and I realized that it seemed as though everyone felt the same way. Not only did he care about us as a collective group of students, but he cared about us as individuals. I remember the work I did in that class, and now I’ve seen this power first-hand on the other side of things as a teacher.

What do you do to cultivate those relationships?
I try to do some things with each student, both simple and more complex. I greet every student at the door with a smile. But there’s a subtle thing I do with that. I don’t smile until I see each student. So they know my smile is a result of seeing them come to my class that day. It’s simple, but it’s powerful. I also try to get to know my students. I let them talk in my room, and I join in. And when I can -- this is where it gets more complex -- I use the things they’ve talked about (be it Clash of Clans, The Bachelor, Taylor Swift, anything really) in my classroom instruction. We know interest drives motivation. I just try to let them know I’m listening and that I care about their interests. I could go on for days here, but those sorts of things are the base of it all.

What benefits have you seen as a result of the bonds you have created?
When students trust their teacher, and have a good relationship with them, they’ll try things they don’t think they can do. My students take chances on writing a thesis that reaches a little bit, because they know I’ve got their back if it gets tough. They don’t give up when they’re not understanding polynomial long division because they know I’m not going to give up on them. I firmly believe that my students do more than they usually could as a direct result of the bonds I have with them.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in forging the bonds between teacher and student?
It takes time. Nobody can walk into a classroom on day one and have that trusting bond. That’s really frustrating when it’s a whole new group of students every year. It might take weeks to develop those bonds. It might take months. With some students, that bond will never come. The worst is when you, as a teacher, do something to hurt their trust in you. Two minutes of saying the wrong thing can take months of work away. But there’s nothing more important to their development as learners.

Do your relationships help you connect with the students after their time with you?
They do! Just a couple weeks ago, I had a student I had 5 years ago e-mail me to let me know he was graduating college and what else was going on in his life. Of course, it turned into a conversation about books, even though I had him for math :-)  I’ve also had the opportunity to tutor some students in college after they’d left my classroom. Another student just had her first child, and I was able to offer my congratulations to her. It’s like I have family everywhere I look. Can you imagine how awesome a world that is?

Is there anything else you want to share about creating relationships with your students?
To all the teachers out there, if you’re working on forging those bonds with your students, keep it up. It’s worth it. For those of you who don’t make this a priority, I hope you give it a chance. Know that it takes time. But as regular readers of your blog know, Katherine, it’s important. It’s just so important.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Brian. And now you can all see Brian’s fabulous presentation at MRA in the video below. If you want to learn more from Brian, head on over to his blog at WYZ Reads, or check him out on Twitter at @brianwyzlic.