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Connecting with our students

Consider this story: There was a teacher who took his job very seriously. He was always on time for class (if not early) and conducted himself in a most professional manner. One day, he experienced some delays that were beyond his control and he arrived a bit late to class. Needless to say, the lateness bothered him and he was a bit flustered as he entered the classroom to begin teaching.

Upon his arrival, a boy from the middle row gleefully raised his left arm and pointed to his watch. The teacher was certain that the child was taunting him for his lateness and was ready to erupt with a strong reprimand and consequence of the child. Fortunately, he caught himself and chose to ignore the student for the time being. His lesson continued unabated.

As soon as the recess bell rang, the student came running over to his teacher. “Teacher, teacher!” he called. “I have something to tell you. Yesterday my mother took me shopping for a watch that I have wanted for months. We finally got it and I wanted you to be the first one to see it. Isn’t it beautiful?”

The teacher confirmed the watch’s beauty and then took a deep breath. He remembered how close he was to yelling at this boy for (apparently) showing him up for his lateness. He was grateful that he had the fortitude to ignore his initial impulses and give the child the benefit of the doubt. Instead of creating friction and distrust between them, the teacher managed to preserve their relationship so that he could properly share in this joyous moment.

*****

As teachers, we know that there is more to our jobs than sharing content and enhancing student skills. We understand intuitively that in order to fully reach our students we need to connect with them and create the right atmosphere for learning. The research of Dr. John Hattie confirmed this when concluding that the most effective way to improve education was to raise the quality of pupil-teacher interactions.

Below is a list of strategies that can help you establish healthy, meaningful relationships with your students and interact in a manner that is healthy and fulfilling.

  • Set the proper tone. Find ways with which to positively engage students from the outset. Greet them as they enter the room with a “good morning” and a high-five. Smile when you see them and let them know that you’re happy that they’re there. Convey the message that you expect a great day from them and anticipate their success.
  • Create a healthy learning environment. One of the most powerful educational quotes that I have ever read has nothing to do with teaching. The author, former teacher and child psychologist Dr. Haim Ginott, wrote about the central role that teachers play in making the classroom’s “weather.”

“I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.”

The classroom atmosphere is directly impacted by the approach and attitude of the almighty teacher. How we use that power can have a great impact on student learning and self-esteem. It is imperative that we comprehend the full impact of the tremendous power invested in us. Use your authority judiciously and proactively find ways with which to create a classroom atmosphere that promotes learning and excitement.

  • Praise early, praise often. If you wish to be able to demand from your students and offer criticism where appropriate, it is imperative for students to know that you are solely motivated by a strong desire to do what is in their best interests. As the leadership expert John C. Maxwell has famously said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

In his famous video “When the Chips are Down,” Richard Lavoie discusses the need for teachers to make regular “deposits” into student “accounts” before making any withdrawals. And while Lavoie is focused primarily on students with learning disabilities and low self-esteem, I submit that the principle of developing a deep sense of trust and security applies to all children.

  • Monitor their progress. Take time to talk privately with each student once the year begins. Find out about their successes as well as their challenges. Ask how you can be of assistance in making their year a success and let them know that you are always available to talk.
  • Let them know that they’re missed. If a student is absent for more than one day due to presumed illness, give them a call. This can be done privately, or with the class present (your students will love the opportunity to call their absent friends from within the classroom). Calling these students will let them know that they are missed (research says that it will also reduce student absenteeism), and that your classroom is simply not the same without them.

In addition to these strategies, there are a number of professional competencies that contribute to strong teacher-student relationships. About 15 years ago, researchers at the University of Oklahoma interviewed college-aged students to ask which behaviors and characteristics of educators were the most important indicators of “credible” teaching. The overwhelming majority of responses pointed to three things in particular, competence, dynamism and trustworthiness.

Competence means that the teacher possesses expertise in his or her field. They know their content area well and come to class prepared to teach. Of equal importance is the fact that these educators are strong communicators, who have the ability to explain complex matters well. Competent teachers are also able to create a healthy learning environment, and manage their classrooms effectively.

Dynamism refers to the fact that that the teacher displays passion about the material. A dynamic teacher is interesting and moderately unpredictable. He adds his own personality to the class, while engaging all students by utilizing a variety of different teaching techniques.

The third characteristic, trustworthiness, expresses the idea that students feel that the instructor has their best interests in mind. They feel welcome and secure in the classroom, knowing that the teacher displays no biases and treats all of the students fairly and equally. Expectations are clearly defined, properly communicated, and realistic.

In addition, trustworthy teachers follow through on their promises, give feedback quickly and have sound, objective criteria for measuring student performance. Students in such classrooms know that the teacher will be flexible and understanding where appropriate.

Of course, there are many other techniques that we could use and qualities that we could demonstrate that would help us connect better with our students. My suggestion is that you identify what you are already doing and build from existing strengths. The next step would be to think about something else that you could be doing to deepen the connection so that you can maximize your influence on the life of the young men and women that have been entrusted to you.

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Education.