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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Too often, I've heard teachers talk about how helpless they feel when it comes to reaching out to their students. The days of being the person whose job it is to exclusively provide students with an education -- and nothing more -- are long over. Honestly, some will say those days never existed. I've never wavered in my belief that teachers are much more than people passing out curriculum. For some students, school is the best part of their day because it offers an escape from their life at home. As teachers, it's important for us to understand that there is so much more to students than the life they lead in class, and it is important to show interest in a student outside of the day's homework. Here are three simple things a teacher can do to connect with students and let them know there is more to school than just a report card.

The First Five Minutes

I have written about the First Five Minutes before, and it is something I strongly believe. The FFM is a simple thing that any teacher can do in his or her class. I always take those first few minutes to engage my students in casual conversation. I ask them about their day and if they have anything exciting going on the rest of the week. We'll talk about gaming, music, television shows, sports, movies, and anything else they want to discuss. Sometimes it's only a couple of minutes with a handful of students or a larger class discussion on something in the news, but this is something I always do in class.

I can learn so much about my students in these few minutes each and every day. I figure out very quickly who has a tough home life based on their answers. If a student talks about babysitting most nights for her siblings, I can guess that the parents work late. If I notice they're always talking about the new books they're reading, I know I can count on them to be leaders in class discussion. I have made some strong connections with students, which has allowed me to help struggling learners and kids with other issues. I could help them because they trusted me, and they trusted me because I listened.

Attending Extra-Curricular Activities

This is something I have dedicated myself to doing since I started teaching -- and it's not easy. In fact, it's only become more difficult with the growth of my family, but I still make an effort to attend the events that my students participate in. It's important to take an interest in the things students love if you want them to take an interest in what you love. I never encountered a student that wasn't happy to see a teacher at one of these events. It's always big smiles and giant waves to get attention. For some of my students, my attending one of their events is more than any of their family members ever attend. It's a simple act to show that the students matter.

Another great reason to attend these events is to connect with family. I love interacting with my students' parents in an informal setting. It's nice way to keep in touch and have conversations about their child. We can share information about class issues and home issues, and then start working together. Parents feel more comfortable talking with teachers they feel are invested in their child's success. Attending a field hockey game at 7:30 on a Wednesday night is one way to show investment. Little acts like appearing at extracurricular events are a sure way to show students and parents that you are involved.

Be Available

Something I started doing more recently has really paid off when it comes to connecting with my students. I hold regular office hours before school starts. I promise all of my students that I will be available from 7:00 AM until the seven-minute bell rings if they want to come and talk, use an iPad to study, or just relax and draw on the desks (which are covered in IdeaPaint, turning them into dry erase surfaces). I tell kids they can email me to schedule an appointment, pop in and schedule one for the next day or just stop by the room. I was surprised at how many students take advantage of the open door. Even better, I have students that I no longer teach stop in and catch up.

My open office hours have turned into a nice place for kids to come before classes start and just talk about what's going on in their lives. Sometimes it's typical high school stuff that can pass in a day or so, but sometimes students express fears about their future, or they're battling depression and fear being medicated for the rest of their lives. The conversations can range from deep and sad to light and goofy. For the students that stop by, I know it means the world to them to have an adult that will listen and be there when they need it. I give up time in the morning, but I gain important connections with my students that allow me to not only help them with their problems, but also engage them in the classroom.

These three things are very different from each other and require different amounts of effort to implement. It has taken me over 12 years of teaching to put them all into place. As I look back at the conversations I’ve had with students and parents and the events I've attended, I wouldn't take any of it back. I hope my son has teachers that are willing to listen to him complain about what a pain I'm being.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer B. Bernstein, Ph.D.'s picture
Jennifer B. Bernstein, Ph.D.
Founder of Get Yourself Into College, Inc. & English Professor (part-time)
Blogger 2014

Nicholas,

It really is so amazing how simple things like 5 minutes of free-ranging discussion, attending a student's performance, or just being there can make a huge difference in a student's life.

I think that sitting in my office with the door open was one of the most important things I did when I was a post-doctoral fellow at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York.

Sure, I had lots of official advising and mentoring sessions, but I still feel that just being there for them--to chat, to learn about what they were learning about, to answer questions, to nod my head, to sympathize, to share opportunities, and prod (when necessary)--was my most valuable service.

The directors of the school emphasized the importance of opening up and sharing with them our own scholarly work--what we found fascinating about it, how we discovered it, and our research process.

Over the years, I've maintained this practice of giving students a behind-the-scenes glimpse into my life and work. I usually do things like share what it was like for me the first time I read a specific text or how I started developing an interpretation of a particular literary work. This practice has revolutionized my classroom discussions.

You've got me thinking about some of my fondest teaching and mentoring moments, so thanks!

cdavies's picture
cdavies
grade 4/5 teacher from ON, Canada

I enjoyed this read so much. Some great simple ideas. I especially love the idea of attending extra-curriculars. As a primary teacher I'm wondering how to approach this. Do you just ask them where they are playing? Does this request ever weird out any of your students or parents?

Thanks for the inspiration.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I think making your classroom a learning family requires getting to know each other better- for after school activities, if kids bring up little league, asking them about it or the next game would be ok I think- after middle school in the States, these things often happen on school property so it's less weird than showing up on a Saturday to a kid's game unless invited by a parent, or if there are a large number of kids in the class in the same activity- and I always fall back on simply ask the parent and tell them why- "Hi, i heard Joey is excited about his first game on Saturday- he's been working so hard in class, I was thinking about stopping by just to offer a word of encouragement- do you think that's ok?" And the parent can help you make that call. We also have to remember sometimes the activities outside of school are also opportunities for kids to be their non-school selves, and for some kids, it may make them feel more under the microscope- that's when you have to go with the folks involved rather than a blanket policy.

Jeffrey Benson's picture

I coach an elementary teacher who greets her kids at the door with an offer: "Hand-shake, high five, fist bump, or hug today?" There is so much deep acceptance in that moment of each of them. Secondary school teachers can do it without the hug offer--breaking through the anonymity of high school is critical for so many reasons, and it can take all of a minute at the door--and boy does it feel good to do it as the teacher!

Ms.Garcia's picture
Ms.Garcia
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

I really liked the Idea Paint. I'm trying to convince my principal to let me do that to my classroom next year for better student engagement.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

Hi cdavies,
As a former classroom teacher of sixth graders, I would indeed ask the kids where they were playing if they were participating in a sport or play or some other activity. My students weren't weirded out at all, and were actually thrilled when I would make an appearance.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY
Blogger 2014

Our students are people, first and foremost. They are discovering who they are and who they want to become, and having that personal connection helps improve the student-teacher relationship immeasurably. Well put, Nicholas.

As an English teacher, I believe this same sort of connection should be established with my students as writers. Instead of using a red pen to copy edit my students' work, I believe even unexpected interactions leave last impressions. I try to give informal feedback in the cafeteria, when passing in the hallway, or when a student arrives to class early. Saying, "hey, I really liked the evidence you offered in your body paragraph" or "that thesis statement really stood out" lets a student know we value their work and it lingers in our minds past the 42 minutes of a period.

A few words in passing is worth more than 30 minutes of comments scribbled in red ink.

Curtis's picture

Nicholas, thank you for the valuable insight and points you have offered here. It is apparent that you really care for your students and that you understand the need to connect with them on a real and personal level. This is so needed in the realm of education today, and I hope/pray that many more like you would begin to pursue connections with their students even if it means sacrificing some of their personal time. As you mentioned, "there is more to school than just a report card", and we as educators need to be prepared to live accordingly. Applying the three principles that you mentioned, and others like them, are incredibly important if we hope to have a lasting impact on our students for the better. Of my many memories from high school, some of the most impactful were those that did not have anything to do with the curriculum, classroom, or grades. Rather they were the personal relationships formed with teachers that developed through times outside of class such as extracurricular activities found during breaks, school field trips, community service projects, and athletics. I remember the value of having an adult there for me to discuss the issues of life, and to provide helpful counsel through the process. Even more than providing answers to my questions and concerns was the value of having someone who showed that they genuinely cared for me through their listening. This type of engagement goes a long way, and as you referenced, will have students coming back to continue the relationship even after they leave our classrooms. Thanks again for sharing, and for the steps you are taking to engage with your students on a personal level.

LaurenL918's picture
LaurenL918
7th Grade Math Teacher

Thank you so much for these suggestions. As of recently, I have been making it a priority to find ways to motivate my students. I recently researched how to increase motivation and one of the commonalities I found amongst resources was to establish relationships with students. As mentioned in your post, getting to know your students establishes a sense of trust. These relationships and the trust that develops is a main source of motivation. A sense of belonging and that they are cared for influences students to want to work for the teacher that is providing them with that positive feeling.

I agree with you that if the students sense your interest in their lives, they are likely have to increased interest in your classroom. I really like your idea about being available. I teach at the middle school level and I feel that at this point in my students lives, they could use an adult for guidance. I have never considered making myself available on a consistent basis like you have. I can see that this would provide your students with a sense of belonging and allow them to trust in you. In many cases, it is the troubled student who has low motivation. By being available to be a trusted adult in their lives, it is likely that your availability during difficult times will also increase their motivation in class.

Once again, thank you for your ideas. They are very practical considering the limited amount of class time available to get to know students. Most of all, I find that your suggestions are likely to truly impact a child's life. As educators, that is our mission. I hope that strategies like yours help to fulfill this mission.

Ang Gramly's picture
Ang Gramly
Life Skills Support Teacher, Mifflinburg PA

I really like those ideas that you have shared. I try to do the same things in my classroom as well. My students come in each morning and get breakfast. We begin our day eating breakfast and chatting about their evening the night before. they enjoy this time, and so do I . I really get to know my students well. I ask questions to show interest in their activities outside of school. I also make it a point to go to a few of my students' baseball games. Half of my class on a challenger league for baseball. I feel like a celebrity when I attend the games. They love it and always waving from the field. The parents also appreciate that I take the extra time to do things like that. I think that getting to know your students' and what interests them will help you in your everyday teaching.

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