by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director
I remember clearly the moment I made my first deep connection with a young child. Actually I was still a child myself, or rather an adolescent. Like many teenage girls I spent many an hour babysitting neighborhood children. In this particular case, I was watching Justin, age four, who lived directly across the street. We were playing outside and when it was time for lunch, we sat in his backyard on a stone wall. After lunch we read a few books on that stone wall, and then at some point went back to playing.
Several weeks passed, and then the day before my next gig with Justin, I received a phone call from his mother. She explained to me that she wouldn’t need me afterall because Justin had a severe case of poison ivy and they canceled their plans.
After I hung up the phone I went across the street to see Justin. He was completely covered in the poison ivy rash. His face was swollen, and he couldn’t open one of his eyes. He smiled when I walked in and began to get up, but his mother told him to lay back down and reminded him that he could not come near me or touch me because of his rash. He looked so sad, but nevertheless heeded his mom and sat back down on the couch and watched cartoons. After a bit of small talk with his mom, I stood and said goodbye to Justin with a wave. As I headed for the door, his mom spoke up and said, “Julie, do you know how Justin got the poison ivy?”
I replied, “No, how?” and felt immediately guilty for not having thought about that or asked.
“Well, a few days ago we were all out in the backyard and I shared with Justin that you would be babysitting again soon. He immediately stopped what he was doing and looked toward the rock wall. Then he ran to it and started walking along the top of it. I yelled over to him to get away from the rock wall because there was poison ivy that had started to grow at it’s base and then I went on with whatever I was doing.” She looked up at me with a funny smile, but at the time I didn’t understand it.
“Oh no!” I replied.
She nodded, “Yup, and the next day when I went outside where Justin was playing I found him hunched over in front of the rock wall pulling the poison ivy out of the ground. He had created quite a large pile of the pulled poison ivy.” She smiled at me again. “I immediately asked Justin, probably in a panicked, yelling voice, “What are you doing?” and he looked up at me and said, “Pulling the poison so Julie and I can sit here together and read.”
My heart sank at those words and as I turned my eyes back to Justin lying on the couch she continued, “You matter to him, and he didn’t want to miss out on what must have meant a lot to him when the two of you spent time on that rock wall.”
I credit that endearing experience with my sincere understanding and appreciation for the role relationships play in a child’s life. When children connect with caregivers, coaches, and teachers especially, they feel a sense of well-being, trust, and commitment. In a school, relationships between teachers and students are of the utmost importance. Even the littlest of exchanges build solid foundations of relationships.
Emily Gallagher, from NYU’s Applied Psychology department shared, “Aligned with attachment theory, positive teacher-student relationships enable students to feel safe and secure in their learning environments and provide scaffolding for important social and academic skills. Additionally, teachers who support students in the learning environment can positively impact their social and academic outcomes, which is important for the long-term trajectory of school and eventually employment (O’Connor et al., 2011).
Here at VMS, relationships matter. Anyone who spends even a fraction of time in our school observes this. It can be seen when first graders run into school holding hands from morning carpool. When upper school students high five and hug lower schools students crossing paths in the halls between classes. Teachers shaking hands with students and greeting them each morning when they enter their classrooms. Students sitting around a harkness table engrossed in discussion with no one person identified as the one in charge. Those are just a few examples of the deliberate designs of VMS to encourage and support relationships.
Because students matter so much to teachers at VMS, you can also find many examples of relationships outside the walls of the school or normal school hours. For example, an upper school homebase advisor shared with me yesterday that she had finally made it to her last extracurricular event, a track meet. She has now been to an event for every single one of her students this school year. Another teacher shared that they started a morning bagel date with their students before school in order to find time to talk and get to know the students on a deeper level because their schedule in the day didn’t afford that time.
While my story of Justin and the poison ivy was a small moment in time in the life of a maturing teenager, it’s important to remember the effect one person can have on another. The lasting impression one can leave even from the simplest of exchanges. That’s what educators know- the simplicity of a high-five, “Great job in the game yesterday,” and even a genuine and sincere hello begins the building of a great relationship, and with that, a course for students to successfully navigate while in school, knowing there’s someone who cares, their teacher.