Children learn best when they feel connected to their teachers. Rita Pierson, an educator, says in her Ted Talk:
“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
When kids feel that their teacher cares for them and wants them to succeed, they work harder, pay better attention, and persist through challenges. If the opposite occurs, students shut down, are unwilling to try, give up easily, and do only the bare minimum.
When kids talk about teachers that they love it usually revolves around one thing: connection. As I watch my own kids go through school I’ve noticed that the teachers they adore connect with them. Adversely, the ones they can’t wait to leave, don’t. My oldest daughter, in particular, had two teachers who were very similar. Both had high standards and were very strict. They both required a lot out of their students. When she left the class of the first teacher, she cried. With the second teacher, she celebrated. So what was the difference? In her mind, she perceived that the first teacher liked her and the second did not. It all boiled down to their connection.
From the first day to the last, try a variety of approaches and try to connect with each and every student.
Start Out Right: Don’t jump right into content delivery the first few days of school. During those first few weeks, focus on developing a rapport with students, establishing routines and procedures, and creating a classroom community. You may be thinking, “But, I have so much curriculum to get through and only a small window of time to do it!” While true, but time invested upfront into community building and getting to know your students will result in greater gains in the long run.
Get to Know Each Other: Spend some time getting to know your students and also helping them to get to know you. It is important for your students to see you as a normal person (though they still might freak out if they see you at the grocery store). Share your interests, your family, your likes and dislikes with your students.
Highlight Students: For older or more advanced students, have them make a PowerPoint about themselves (start by showing one about you!). For younger students, ask them to bring three items or three pictures that tell about themselves and present them to the class. Highlight a few students each day until you’ve heard from them all. Better yet, use these photos for your Circles® Graph and explore each student’s world of Circles®.
Show and Tell: This is a classic in the world of education, and for good reason. It can be adapted for different subject matter and content, but having kids bring something of their choosing from home gives you great insight into their lives.
Journaling: Give students the opportunity to journal and to share it with you. Sadly, as a teacher, you’re pulled in so many different directions that one-on-one conversations with students are rare. Journaling helps bridge that gap. Students can write about themselves and what is going on in their lives and you can write back. Keep in mind that this is not a grammar or spelling exercise, so resist the temptation to correct them. This is a chance for kids to share with you. Many kids will feel safe opening up through writing when they might not in any other way.
Class Meetings: At the beginning of school, incorporate class games and discussions about what kids want to learn. Ask them to tell you what they like and don’t like about school. Establish procedures for how these meetings will run. For example, have a ball or stuffed animal that kids hold when it is their turn to talk, and give everyone a chance to share. Then as the year progresses you can hold these meetings to discuss important topics, check in with students and solve classroom problems.
Get Your Students’ Input: What do they want to learn this year? What do they like or hate about school? What do they wish would be different about this year vs last year? Are there any social or work-related skills they want to learn?
Of course, some things you can’t change (like the lunch menu) but just letting them feel heard is a great chance for connection.
Persist with Hard-to-like Children: Although you may feel that you are expected to be superhuman, teachers are all still human. Part of human nature is that you will easily click with some students, but with others, it may take some time. In every class, you will have at least one child that is more difficult for you to like. Don’t feel guilty, again this is a sign of your humanity! However, don’t give up. Keep trying to connect with that student. Some students could be struggling with anxiety or have faced trauma and your support could help them quite a bit.
Connecting with our students is an absolutely vital part of the work we do as teachers. Most of us went into education hoping to change the lives of our students for good, and a connection is the way we do that. Slow down and focus on connecting with your students as this new school year starts to set your classroom up for success.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.