Last week I posted a clip of a positive outlier, 3rd grade teacher Nicole Willey from Leadership Prep Ocean Hill Elementary Academy in Brooklyn. It showed, among other things, how she used Check for Understanding to ensure that she knew how all of her students were doing, and how she built her Ratio so the kids did the work and the thinking. Great stuff.
This week I want to show a clip that demonstrates something that is also a key part of Nicole’s success, but something that’s very different from what we saw in last week’s clip. Nicole, we’ve noticed, builds rapport and trust with students via touch. Her interactions are mundane and beautiful. A hand on a shoulder, a brief touch to a forearm. Her touch says: “I am so proud of you I cannot just keep it to words.” And while Nicole’s use of touch seems to us to be warm, humane and practical, touching students remains somewhat controversial.
If you don’t believe me check out Jessica Lahey’s outstanding article on the topic- especially the comments.
Jess’ article isn’t our only data point. Touching students is a topic that comes up again and again in our workshops with teachers. Not only do teachers frequently hear students announce, “You can’t touch me,” in a tone that suggests it is enshrined at the highest level, but schools often appear to agree and advise teachers not to touch students while teaching.
My team and I think it’s important to be able to touch people and to normalize touch. Think for a moment about what it means to think—or enshrine in policy—that certain people cannot, should not be touched. In India and other countries this was historically the mark—and the name–of the lowest caste: Untouchables. Nothing expresses their other-ness, their disconnection, like saying someone should not be touched (Except in specific cases, e.g. abuse victims, religious reasons) and often the children who most need to be reached are the most resistant to the connection, so accepting a “you can’t touch me” may also come at a cost.
Obviously teachers must be intentional about when and how they touch students. Only certain very limited types of touch are ok: “Shoulders and elbows” is a good rule of thumb. There are other rules and/or expectations that schools should discuss and agree upon as they establish their cultures and it may be helpful to share these with parents. Always better to have explained to a parent in advance why you don’t ascribe to the belief that it’s disrespectful to touch a child before they arrive in your office in a state of anger about it.
But in this post I want to focus on what can go right rather than what could go wrong, on why you would touch a student, and for that I propose to merely show you a few minutes from Nicole’s classroom. Watch it and look at the students’ faces as they respond to Nicole and as Nicole uses touch to build relationships with them. One of the primary reasons why touch is beneficial will be obvious as you watch.
Touch is part of Nicole’s vernacular, it’s a normal and natural part of the classroom for her and that’s important. It will look different—should look different—for every teacher. And for some it IS awkward or outside their personal vernacular. If that’s the case for you or a teacher you work with, fine, don’t use it. But it’s worth it to see the potential upside and to take a minute to analyze a few aspects of Nicole’s touch.
First and foremost, notice how touch communicates honestly and genuinely her caring for students and her connection to them as individuals. So genuine. No words can quite express the same idea. But also notice how in a few cases she uses gentle corrective touch—to help one child sit up and attend to his work a little more. Because she has normalized touch as a positive thing, she can use it efficiently and with its intended message of supportive caring for constructive interactions. Even these corrections feel caring. But this has a practical side too: Usually when a student announces “You can’t touch me!” it’s in one of those moments when a teacher must: To prevent students from further conflict; to keep a student from losing emotional control. One of the benefits of building a base of consistent positive, touch is that it makes that argument unsustainable. If you are Nicole’s student and touch is part of your relationship, it is implausible to announce, “You can’t touch me.” She’s been doing it all year. Instead of “Why did she touch me?” there is a familiar reminder of the bond between student and teacher.
Notice also the different levels of touch.
1) Level 1: High fives, hand slaps and other hand-to-hand contact. These are the basics—fine but limited in range and warmth of what they can convey. They are a good starting point. For some teachers this may be as far as you wish to—or should—go (e.g. male teachers in high school, teachers whose style is more formal)
2) Level 2: Flat touches to elbows and shoulders. These are the basis of positive touch that most effectively build relationships. Elbows and shoulders are safe, general. By “flat” we mean just laying a hand briefly on a shoulder. No grip, no squeeze, no circles or other hand movements on a child’s arm or back, say. These are most easily misunderstood and best reserved for those who are skilled and comfortable with touch such as Nicole.
3) Level 3 (Advanced): Some of Nicole’s loveliest touches involve just the things we recommend being cautious about in level 2. Tousling hair. Exuberant congratulations expressed as forearm rub. Not everyone can pull these off so we leave it to teachers to decide if and when they are ready and if and when it is a natural part of who they are. We love this part of Nicole’s teaching, we want to let its power and beauty be seen, but we recommend caution until you are sure it can and should be part of your vernacular.