My 30+ years in and around education have been quite an experience for me. I have not loved every minute, but I love being an educator. Over the years I have taught every grade level and adults. My oldest student was in her 80’s.
i started teaching in 1990. I first started teaching in a Juvenile Hall, then I taught High School History at a boarding school in Southern California with students who did not thrive in traditional school. I continued with that population when I moved to Georgia as part of a team to launch a new boarding school. Working with students who had trauma, or just did not fit the traditional mold was a fit for me. I loved those students. I saw myself in them so much of the time. In different circumstances, I might have been one of them.
Then I had three daughters in one year. WOW, my life changed. One precious little soul, then twins in such a short period flipped me on my head. I left the traditional classroom for the time being. As many educators at heart do, I found myself still educating. Taking the neighborhood kids and providing activities, teaching them to read, and doing homework together. I cherished that time.
As soon as my kids were in school I ended up volunteering to teach technology at the local elementary. I learned new classroom management skills and found joy in teaching grades K-5. Learning about their different developmental stages and how to manage the classroom based on different ages was exciting.
From there I found a job teaching technology, building labs, and writing technology curricula. Another sweet spot for me. As the years continued and my children grew, I ended up back with High school students teaching technology.
Connecting with students makes the job of an educator delightful. When you see the light bulb go off or watch them laugh, smile and have fun, as an educator it can fill you up.
Yet, when there is a disconnect between you and the student or even worse hostility, it can make for some hard days in the classroom.
Over the years I have watched students and their parents change. I would say it’s much more difficult now than when I began. I also found that during Covid we as educators experienced the most difficult time connecting with our students. I found myself trying new things, ditching old tried and true classroom management techniques, and finding new ways to connect.
Connecting with students takes intentionality and time. Yet it is worth it! As a technology instructor, I find it exciting that I get to teach all grades. Kindergarten students take a different approach from middle school students. But in general, the starting point can be the same. Here are 10 ways I found connecting with students of any age to be helpful.
1 – Pick your battles wisely. The last school I worked at had a dress code. I was told to make the students follow the dress code. What I found was students started their day in my class grumpy and fighting me if I homed in on the dress code. This exchange had nothing to do with my subject and got in the way. So, I tried something different. I would mention it if I noticed it to them privately.
No need to call a kid out. No one likes to be called out. The issue is usually bigger than the teacher can solve at that moment. I don’t want the students to be a jerk to me, so I worked hard at not being a jerk to them.
2 – Get to know each student’s strengths and interests. Find out what students do after school, when at home, or on the weekends. For the artists in my classroom, I always had art supplies for when they were done with their work. For the athletes, I had bookmarked games on the computer to play with class members when they were done with their work. Worldly, scrabble and other digital games were a hit.
I remember a student who rode horses competitively. She wanted to design images for her saddle. During lunch, she came in and learned how to use software where she could design and have fun.
3 – Start with showing genuine interest in their lives and experiences. I had a group of girls who were all basketball players. I started going to their games. I learned their positions, celebrated their wins, and sent messages of encouragement when they had a loss. Their grades started going up in my class. Instead of falling asleep, they engaged in discussions.
Another student always came late to class, never let me see her eyes amidst her long bangs, and had her head down most of the time. She loved computer games. We encouraged her to join the Esports team. She did. She was the only girl on the team at that time. She still struggled to get to the first period and stay awake, but her smile was there more than not.
4 – Show empathy and understanding towards your students. Once there was a little 2nd grader who came to class each week in tears. As a tech teacher, I only saw her once a week. She was terrified she would do something wrong. Students around her were frustrated and rolled their eyes. After trying a few different things, I went and had lunch with her.
This little girl needed a friend. She was so fearful she pushed everyone away. She ended up becoming my helper in the class and by the end of the year, she was all in and excited to come to class.
5 – Build strong relationships by having regular check-ins and one-on-one conversations. No matter the grade, students want to know they matter. In the technology lab, we would teach students how to manage their time by using digital calendars starting in 4th grade. I would meet with students throughout the year and see how they were doing with keeping on track.
During this simple time, I would learn so much about each student. They were learning project management skills, time management, and G.R.I.T. in the classroom through the projects. The time with me was the check-in on how it was all going. These times built our relationship together.
6 – Provide personalized feedback and support. This one-on-one time was when I could give personalized feedback and support. Students usually loved this time and were thrilled when they had their time with me.
Younger grades got to pick out a sticker from the jar after the meeting. Older students got a free homework pass or a late pass after the meeting. The time was fun.
7 – Encourage open and respectful communication. Middle school is rough. It’s like they just discovered swearing and many can’t stop. Their bodies are changing, it’s awkward, sometimes smelly, and self-control can be lacking. Peer pressure is real.
So, when a student was disrespectful instead of getting angry, I did my best to redirect and model respectful communication. Not always easy. I blew it at times. I raised my voice at students, and sometimes I felt it was necessary. But if I wanted to encourage open and respectful communication, I had to model it.
8 – Create a positive and supportive classroom environment. HAVE FUN! I would think about the bare minimum classroom expectations and student expectations. When a student does something above that, I give rewards. I personally love rewards. So why not give them to your students? Playing Kahoots, Trivia, and other games breaks up the class times. We all need breaks and fun at times.
The last school I was at had 90-minute classes. Often, we would have stretch time in between. Or I would let them know that if we got through the discussion with everyone engaged, we then could take the last 20 and do something fun.
9 – Try your best to not take their put-downs or roasts personally. This tends to start in late elementary, and early middle school. This was difficult for me at first. But I realized that this is a way that middle schoolers connect. They are creative and actually can be funny. I’m not a naturally funny person.
But to connect with one group of students, I had to learn to not take it personally, but instead, just engage in the fun. I follow Gabe Dannenbring on social media. He has so many good ideas on how to just have fun with middle schoolers. He is hilarious. Give him a follow.
10 – Recognize that your students all come from diverse backgrounds, diverse parenting styles, and diverse expectations. No matter their grade or age, students are individuals with different life experiences. I encourage all teachers to take a cultural intelligence course. Culture comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s important to learn skills to be able to adapt to the different experiences your students come from.
I took a course from https://signi.org/. It changed how I thought about every student in my classroom. One of the best courses I have taken over the years. Our school administrator had brought in Signi.org and it gave us tools on how to work with our incredible students and their families. Highly recommend it!
Connecting with students is what we do best. If we teach a grade level or a subject, connecting with students builds up the students as well as brings us, the educator, the energy to keep on going. You’ve got this! Remember why you went into education and know that these incredible humans in our class each day need you.