Matthew Patterson teaches 12th grade English at Benjamin Banneker High School in College Park, GA. Last year, Mr. Patterson was awarded TNTP’s Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice. We recently spoke with Mr. Patterson after he finished his school day about building strong student relationships and how to keep teaching fun.
Thriving Schools: The last time we spoke, you shared with us your thoughts on designing engaging curriculum. Today, we want to ask you about how you build strong relationships with your students. To begin, can you tell us what student success looks like to you?
Mr. Patterson: Let me start by telling you a bit about my school, Banneker High. We’re routinely the lowest-performing school in Fulton County, and so success in my classroom may look a little different than in other places. But I’m really really proud of a number of things. I’ve had many students receive full academic scholarships to Georgia Tech, Georgetown, NYU, Washington University, and the University of Georgia. That’s on the high end. I also love it when my lowest readers can articulate their thoughts on the best books of our time, even if they’re only reading on a 5th or 6th grade level. In terms of numbers, it’s not uncommon for my lowest readers to go from a 3rd or 4th grade reading level to a 9th or 10th grade level in a single year. It seems ridiculous, but that’s what happens when my students put in a ton of effort.
Thriving Schools: So success looks a little different for each student?
Mr. Patterson: Absolutely! Success has to be defined on an individualized basis. What success is for my #1 student is not going to be the same for a student that’s a member of the Bloods and who’s never been exposed to authentic scholarship before. So, when I see those kids gravitate to the material – that feels like a massive success to me. It’s seeing the greatest growth – someone who’s never been interested in English before – making those strides and asking to take extra books home over the weekend. That feels really good.
Thriving Schools: We’ve already spoken about the role your curriculum plays in this success, but what else is important?
Mr. Patterson: It all starts with relationships! The foundation of my teaching is strong relationships. Ultimately, that’s what I feel all of teaching is. Because the more that you can connect with a child – that they trust you and you have their best interests at heart – the more they’re going to put up with you when things don’t go well. Because no teacher is going to be serving up strikes the entire time. Ya know what I mean? Sometimes, the materials that I love go over like a fart in church! Right! So none of the other things we do – deep dives on the books, connections with authors, etc. – matter if I didn’t have strong relationships with my students and they were willing to follow me anywhere.
Thriving Schools: How have your interactions with students changed over time?
Mr. Patterson: The one thing that I’ve only recently started doing is getting out of my own way. I’m a real “saver” type. And I have to just shut-up sometimes and let my students struggle. It doesn’t matter how good of a sentence I can write, right? That’s meaningless. What I’m interested in is what my students can do. And I find that my discussions in class work the best when I don’t need to say anything. I can say something 15 times. But if I can get Deante to say it, it’s like “Woah – now we’ve learned it.” So I’m all about creating the opportunities to step away and let my students run the show!
Thriving Schools: What are some ways in which students help to shape the direction of the curriculum?
Mr. Patterson: My students are really helpful with this. So one of my students, 2 days ago, said “When we’re studying the Congo, it seems like we’re only seeing all the negatives.” So what did we do? We watched a clip of Anthony Bourdain in the Congo, where we could see some of the positives taking place too!
Thriving Schools: Do you have any other thoughts you can share around building strong relationships with your students?
Mr. Patterson: The most powerful thing you can do is to believe in someone – to say to them, “You have greatness in you!” And when somebody really believes in you, it changes your entire life. And that’s the teacher I want to be. I’m not always like that, but I’m trying to be.
Thriving Schools: Throughout our conversation, it’s become really apparent how much fun you have creating your curriculum. Can you tell us more about that?
Mr. Patterson: I cannot imagine working at a school where I would be asked to read the same 6 books every year. It would destroy me. Destroy me! I have a really voracious intellectual appetite and I need to be learning stuff at the same time students are. The more you can get into the real issues of life – what love is, what does this poetry really mean, what does it mean to be an American – the more you're going to love what you’re doing. And so I try to ask questions that I want to hear the answers to.
Thriving Schools: Any other thoughts on this?
Mr. Patterson: I find that if I don’t know the material backwards and forwards, it’s actually better. And I know that sounds weird. But for the material to be exciting to me, there needs to be a sense of discovery. So, Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’ve read that novel 150-200 times. Love it! It’s my favorite. But I’m always finding new stuff to talk about. I make sure that I don’t use the same worksheets. Your third time through something, you know where the problems are going to come from. And at that point, you can do what you’ve always done. Or you can slow it down and become a teacher.