5 Ways to Build Real Teacher-Student Connections for the Year Ahead

column | Professional Development

5 Ways to Build Real Teacher-Student Connections for the Year Ahead

By Chrissy Romano-Arrabito (Columnist)     Aug 9, 2018

5 Ways to Build Real Teacher-Student Connections for the Year Ahead

Summer is the time for many educators to reboot, relax, and re-energize for the upcoming school year. We do this in different ways. Some attend conferences, participate in webinars, or read up on educational trends to learn and grow before putting their newly-acquired knowledge into practice in September.

Others don’t think much about school at all and spend their time either working another job to make ends meet or with family and friends doing the things they love (and don’t have time for) during the school year. I spend my summer at the Jersey shore unwinding on the beach, reading all the books I didn’t have time for during the school year and planning for September.

I also spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how my son will adjust as he enters his first year of high school. I wonder about all sorts of things, but especially how he will connect and interact with a whole new set of teachers, and the relationships he’ll build with them. Perhaps they too are using the summer to think about the same thing.

Every Kid Can Blossom

Around this time last year I wrote an article for EdSurge where I talked about my son’s 4th grade teacher, Justin Jasper. I talk about Mr. Jasper a lot when I write or speak to teachers about nurturing kids in their classrooms.

When Mr. Jasper was an elementary school teacher he did a fine job of making connections and getting to know kids as people. He built relationships with them and as a result many kids, my son in particular, really blossomed in his class. Mr. Jasper had a way of making each kid feel special. He has since moved on to a middle school assistant principal position and I am confident he continues to care about kids much in the way he did when he was in the classroom.

New Beginnings

Soon another school year will begin and a new flock of kids will be sitting in your classrooms, walking the halls, and riding the buses. Kids who carry many things with them that we cannot see. Many are coming to school but their minds and bodies may not be ready for learning.

During my 15 years as a middle school teacher I have seen many educators, including myself, who can’t wait to jump right into the lessons that they spent so long planning and perfecting. It was only after my youngest child started school that my eyes began to open wider and see things a bit differently.

Kids aren’t just minds to fill. Kids will learn more from us if they enjoy the journey and developing real relationships is a great place to start. I now spend the better part of the first month of school with a focus on building rapport with and among my new students. Front loading the school year with conversations and activities that build a sense of community in the classroom will pay off in the end.

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You!

I love the song by Julie Andrews where she sings about the privilege of a teacher to learn from her students. “Suddenly I'm bright and breezy because of all the beautiful and new things I'm learning about you day by day.”

Donald Graves, the father of Writing Workshop, said something similar, “If you don’t know 10 things about a child, you can’t teach them. If they don’t know 10 things about you, they won’t learn from you.” But Rita Pierson, a veteran teacher with over 40 years in education, says it best, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Watch her Ted Talk here. If you haven't seen it you should watch it. If you have, watch it again! Her message is clear and strong - as an educator it behooves you to connect with your students on a real and personal level.

Here are some great ways to start off the school year and build real connections:

  1. Teachers are human, too: Show off your flexibility, humor, and the ability to try new things, fail, and laugh when things don’t work out. Don’t take yourself too seriously!
  2. Share your “out-of-school” life: Think about all the projects you probably did in elementary school where you had to bring in pictures or cut out images from magazines to represent your life. You as the teacher should do whatever task or assignment you ask of your students and make sure you share it with them! Talk to them about your hobbies, your pets and your favorite food and don’t forget to ask them about their lives. You have more in common with your students than you may think.
  3. Use Social Media: Maximize the social aspects of social channels. Share what you post on social media and what you blog about to build rapport and look for common interests. My students know that I am a blogger and I always share new posts (especially when they contain pictures of them). In addition, I share individual tweets or posts on my social media feeds in class but I do not “friend/follow” students or members of their families. (Disclaimer - please follow the guidelines as outlined by your school district with regard to posting on social media platforms.)
  4. Rapid Fire Intros: Using Collaborative Google Slides, assign each student a slide and have them use it to create a representation of themselves. Check out this sample. When everyone has completed a slide set it to auto-advance and give each student 15-30 seconds to introduce themselves. I like to give students the option of introducing themselves or having the teacher or another student introduce them if they are not comfortable addressing the class. After everyone has been introduced I ask the class what they noticed about their classmates. Most often students are surprised at how much they have in common with each other or how much they didn’t know about their friends!
  5. Classroom Circles: Borrowed from the Restorative Justice movement students sit in a circle facing each other to facilitate direct communication and open dialogue. Circles can be used at any point of the school day and for any reason. The idea is to create a safe space where students are comfortable discussing and sharing. When I was teaching at the middle school level I would start each class period in a circle just to check in with students as a way for them to share their feelings and learn how to build empathy and listen to others. In my elementary classroom, we use circles upon returning from lunch recess to center ourselves and bring our attention back into focus for the remainder of the school day.

No matter what methods you choose take the time to get to know your students—to talk with them, listen to them, and find ways to connect with them. I promise the time and effort you put into building relationships with your students will be worth its weight in gold.

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