The Pre-student

Any good teacher understands the importance of getting to know their students. It’s a vital part of what we do. It allows us to craft our instruction to meet student needs, form bonds that improve learning, and make teaching personal.

While getting to know students who are on my roster is essential to successful teaching, I often wonder about the student who isn’t in my class, but will be in the coming school years. This is the kid I see around school that I don’t know, but who I will eventually teach. What about them?

I consider them the Pre-student.

The Pre-student is any student who is not in my class…yet. They might be that student who walks past me at the same time every day as I greet my students in the classroom doorway. Or perhaps we paths cross regularly at school events or extracurriculars. They may tag along with their friend during my after-school tutoring sessions. The Pre-student could even be the kid who I meet and chat with once while covering for an absent colleague. These are just a few ways that I come across the Pre-student, but at a small school like mine, these kinds of encounters happen a lot. Truth is, any student at my school who I don’t know has the potential of being a Pre-student.

I view the relationship I nurture with each student as a story, a personal narrative that writes itself over the course of a school year. For the Pre-student, the introduction to their story happens before they even sit down in my room. In this way, the Pre-student offers me something invaluable: not having to wait until they’re in my class to establish a relationship with them. Our relationship is a proverbial ice-breaker. It’s a low-stakes opportunity to establish common ground before they enter my class and there are suddenly so many other things to worry about. Through these students is where I catch glimpses of my instructional future.

As a teacher, my Pre-student relations have a nontrivial and underrated impact on the start of the year. By establishing them, it means that, come September, we’re not starting from ground zero. At a time when so much is brand new, it means that we won’t be strangers. Building relationships and getting to know students takes so much effort, so doing some of that work beforehand gives my beginning of the year dealings with students a leg up. Ironically, although they happen outside my classroom, these early relationships also help form the basis of my efforts to build community in my classroom.

What’s also special about these relationships is how they create a context that deemphasizes traditional teacher and student roles. Unlike that of current students, there are no strings attached when it comes to my Pre-students. No grades, no assignments, no nothing. This blissful state of detachment is liberating and frees us to simply connect. This has been especially valuable coming back from remote learning since interacting with Pre-students wasn’t possible or, if they were, happened a lot less frequently last year.

Interestingly, the same dynamic that makes interacting with the Pre-student so freeing is the same one that can make relationships with them feel strange. For me, most of teaching and learning is transactional. Everything I do with my students has some prescribed end goal, some tangible output. If there isn’t a deliverable that accompanies an exchange between me and a student, as is the case with the Pre-student, then it can feel odd establishing such a relationship.

It’s worth noting that when I say “relationship” or “relations,” I don’t mean anything other than putting a face to a name along with knowing a personal detail or two about them. Usually, these long-distance relationships don’t foster anything more than that. For many of my Pre-students this year, I only know their name, an experience we’ve shared, and a salient detail about their life. Initiating such a relationship takes minimal energy; it requires me to simply identify a student who I don’t know and ask them their name. Maintaining it is just as simple because small talk is a necessary part of it. In a day and age when teachers never seem to have enough time for anything, caring for a Pre-student relationship is not a big ask.

As the sun sets on this school year and I look forward to the next, several Pre-students come to mind. I look forward to seeing them again and acknowledging them by name. In a sea of unacquainted faces that will be waiting for me in September, my Pre-students will offer me a needed sense of familiarity. In them, the future will become the present. Our preestablished kinship will not only make getting to know my students more manageable, but also make the start of the year friendlier, brighter, and more hopeful.

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