Friday, September 28, 2012

It's Not Always About Math

"I know Mista, I did really bad. Imma come during lunch to get help."

I do a lot of legwork in the beginning of the year building relationships with my students. It's actually a tactic I learned in the finance world. As an investment banking analyst a.k.a. finance monkey, my day-to-day rarely comprised of human contact outside of my own colleagues. On most days and nights, I sat in my cubicle and built financial models, created presentations, and then made sure these materials were delivered on time to my managing director's Upper East Side condo before his black Lincoln Town Car came to drive him to the airport. Of course, I sent the materials to him using a separate company Town Car that would make the delivery and come back to the office. Simultaneously, I'd take another black Town Car back to my place on the company's dime for working into the wee hours of the night. What recession?..

It was rare for a low ranking monkey like me to travel. Sometimes I'd get to go on an actual pitch or travel with my deal team on a road show, but not often during the 2008 financial meltdown. When I did get a chance to tag along with the BSDs, I noticed something very important: it wasn't always about whether the ideas we were pitching were good or bad, it was really about fostering the banker-client relationship. BSD bankers didn't just wine and dine their clients, they literally had to fake a somewhat decent friendship. You had to remember details about your client's family, sports preferences, alma mater, etc. I could be wrong, maybe some of these friendships were real, but when bankers sniffed a deal it was hard to imagine they were doing this work to "help grow a friend's business."

So after a tough period of building a relationship and establishing trust with a new client, the client would finally be open to hearing a banker's insights into their business. There was usually a lot of back and forth involved: pitching, wining-and-dining, repeat. At some point, the client would give in and it seemed like he/she wanted this banker. Maybe it was a matter of prestige, trust, or perhaps plain old guilt; whatever it was, it worked and the bankers knew it. We all knew it was really difficult to get big clients to switch over to new bankers, even if the new bankers had really good, transformative ideas for a new client's business. Relationships, and a willingness to work hard in the beginning, reigned supreme in an investment banker's world.

When I started teaching, I applied what I had learned. I went to the cafeteria in the mornings to sit and "chill" with my students when they came in for breakfast. In the hallways during passing, I gave fist bumps and high fives to those who looked up or down. Instead of planning out every minute of the period, I let things ride, preferring natural conversation than forced structure and memorizing script. During lunch period recently, I skipped my "me" time to talk to students about how drug dealers have to deal with inflation, since it's mostly an all-cash business and cash loses 3% in value every year. "Sorry kids, but Chase doesn't offer a drug-lord investment account to combat inflationary forces," I said. I told them if they ever wanted to live a legit lifestyle and make money grow by itself, it wasn't going to happen with cash. "I don't know about you guys, but I'm lazy. Living a life where you're always looking over your shoulder? That's mad work, my guy."

Yes, my speech and writing also changes from time to time around my students. I want to meet them at eye-level, so to speak. Instead of writing "Excellent!" on math quizzes, I write "Wavy..." The kids seem to embrace the fact that I am able to use their language and I think they appreciate me not forcing them to adapt to my language preferances. It's part of building the relationship. Sure, I correct their grammatical errors in writing, but I also emphasize the importance of being able to code switch between the "professional" me and "casual" me. It's extremely important that they view our relationship less as student-teacher and more as little brother/sister-big brother.
Side note: Readers of this blog should note I'm in no way poking fun of my students' English skills when I quote them on this blog or when I use their speech. The quotes are there because that's what was said. I'm not going to change what was said in order to appear politically correct, especially since it's colloquial speech and doesn't need any sort of fixing, correcting, etc.
Back to the relationship building: don't get me wrong, I enjoy building relationships with my students for the sake of building relationships. If I didn't, I would've quit on day one three years ago. It's just about getting them to do things my way, without them actually feeling like they've lost a sense of control. Relationships lead to leverage, which I can then use for the greater good. For example, when I'm trying to introduce new material to a class and some students are disrespectfully talking over me, several students speak up and shut them up for me. I just have to give a look like I'm annoyed. When I've established relationships with students who then miss my class for a long period of time, I can feel their guilt. It's almost like they don't want to let me down, perhaps because they may believe I've helped give them a small boost of confidence in a subject matter they didn't feel confident about before.

Nothing works better in terms of classroom management than a handful of students in your room who truly respect you and want to impress you. Indeed, these are the students who want you not just as their teacher, but as their friend and mentor. The connections need to be made first, as the math can always be taught later.


Anonymous said...

a simple principle - it's impossible to earn respect unless it is given as well. i bet this is especially true for your kids, since they've been dealt some pretty tough cards in life.

interesting post, and as usual, really well written!

Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
Yeah, I'd say it's probably a result of dealing with tough cards AND dealing with a sense of independence given at too early of an age.

Thanks for the comment!

janelle said...

It's this stuff, the psychology and sociology behind teaching that I find really challenging and admirable in people who are successful in the profession. I give you major props for the thought and effort you put into what you detail here. It's so crucial -- with teaching, and with everything else in life too.

Yo Mista said...