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Student Engagement

6 Small but Mighty Ways to Make Your Students Feel Important

Hundreds of brilliant educators weighed in with tactics to make kids feel like important members of the school community. We distilled the best advice.

March 18, 2022

When setting priorities, the prevailing wisdom seems to converge on the same fundamental insight: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Separate the wheat from the chaff. Don’t make mountains out of molehills.

Inside classrooms, that advice falls short, according to hundreds of teachers who recently responded to our social media question, “How do you make your students feel important?”

In fact, “it’s the little things” that make all the difference to students, insisted educator Lauren Mooney, and variations on this competing advice—from emphasizing “small talk” to “highlighting student accomplishments, small or large”—appeared dozens of times in the social media threads, as educators zeroed in on tiny classroom moves that translated into big steps forward for kids.

So there you have it, new classroom adages pulled from the odds and ends of the thread: Go ahead and sweat the small stuff. You can’t get to the mountaintop without visiting the molehill. Give some love to the chaff. Those observations, plus six more super-smart insights from experienced teachers about how to make students feel important, in the notes that follow:

1. Listen, Talk, Shout It Out

We’ve heard it from educators a thousand times: Observing even the simplest rules of social etiquette pays big dividends in schools. The word listen (and its many variants) appeared in the thread more than 75 times, often tucked into phrases like “just listen to students” or “really spend time listening to them” that sounded, by turns, admonitory or encouraging. For many teachers, listening to kids was a whole-body experience: “Nod your head” vigorously, suggested one teacher, while others recommended listening “with both your eyes” or giving it a try “with your whole self.”

Physical impossibilities aside, the point stands: While educators shouldn’t “push if students aren’t comfortable with it,” listening more actively sends a signal that you care. If you can, “make eye contact, sit down next to them, kneel beside them, and ask them questions about what they have going on,” suggested teacher Heidi Baehman.

You should also try to greet kids by name at the classroom door, in hallways, and anywhere you encounter them—and invest the time to get their names right, said dozens of teachers (it’s best to get “their personal preference” and “ask them to pronounce it”). “Aim to call each of them by name during each block,” and try to direct “a single idea or sentence” to as many kids as you can, confirmed teacher Joel Garza.

Finally, to give kids an extra boost, consider in-class and schoolwide shout-outs. Principal Shantelle Oliphant reported that “shout-out slips are in the office for all to access.” Once completed, they’re affixed to a hallway wall for all to see (pro tip: Not every kid has stapler skills, so consider providing tape or putty). Heather Nicole Johnson’s teenage students love her “birthday shout-outs on the whiteboard,” and a principal in Philadelphia does it digitally: “I make a short video of the announcements every day. I shout out birthdays of students and staff. It is a small gesture that students look forward to."

2. Check In, Follow Up

But social niceties aren’t enough to build true rapport, according to educators. To create more durable bonds with students, you need to nurture a rich dialogue over weeks and months, asking lots of questions and, crucially, following up to demonstrate authentic interest.

“I do a quick ‘question of the day,’” said Beth Geuder Calhoun. “Sometimes a silly question, sometimes a more serious question such as ‘What do you like about yourself?’” Other teachers took a less structured approach, touching base periodically to ask about upcoming events, siblings, cherished pets, birthdays, and student passions. The key, though, lies in actually “remembering little things about their life and then asking about it a few days/weeks later,” according to Andi Brier Morrison. Check in on a pet’s health or a recent school event they participated in, for example, or send a note home to acknowledge a life-changing event in the family.

To manage that with dozens or even hundreds of students, it’s OK to “cheat,” wrote educator Sir Mr. Shoe, drawing lots of virtual love from in-the-know educators. “Any time I hear anything interesting, I set an alarm for a class in the following week. So on Tuesday, shortly after my phone beeps, ‘Mary’ will be asked how yesterday’s ballet competition went.” Notes tucked away in your scheduler or calendar should work as well.

3. Dig Deeper

Sometimes, of course, kids experience life events that are hard to talk about, and identifying students at that critical juncture may be the difference between progress and a lost year.

When problems arise, start conversations about discipline with the question “Are you OK?” suggested lzcoop, and make time to “read their assignments carefully; they often give you clues,” added Susan Jane Craine Long, a retired teacher from Illinois, before suggesting a more proactive approach: “My students wrote in journals at the beginning of each day. I told them that I would not read everything, but if there was something they really wanted me to read, they were to turn down the corner of the page.”

4. Be Responsive

When you know your kids, you can adjust your curriculum to match student interests, provide alternative assessment options for kids based on preference, and do a better job differentiating at the individual level.

“Have a two-minute convo with each kid regularly. Ask: how are things going in their lives, what challenges are they facing?” said user sksciteacher, and then “incorporate their culture and language in class.” You can also try surveys to gather student concerns more systematically, according to middle school educator prayer and pedagogy: “I do student surveys every nine weeks, and when I implement stuff from their feedback, I let them know I’m doing this because I heard them and they matter to me.”

By turning social insights into a tool to “build and mold your lessons and classroom environment around student interest,” educators reinforce a culture of safety and inclusivity “where students see themselves represented,” said teacher Amanda Michelle.

5. Democratize

Like any institution, schools can inadvertently reinforce artificial or arbitrary power structures, leading to environments that feel sterile, uninviting, or even hostile.

Subtle adjustments in perspective can communicate respect to students and humanize classrooms. Versions of the phrase “treat them like real people”—including “talk to them like humans” and “treat them as a person first, student second”—occurred dozens of times in the thread. The dynamic should work both ways: Students need permission to “access teachers as a person,” according to Kristen Yancey, and simple gestures like saying you’re sorry or sharing personal stories, as appropriate, can make a real difference: “I share my mistakes, my dumb decisions, my failures—and explain how that all led to where I am now. I fight to be human to them,” explained user Joy Joy.

Meanwhile, opening classrooms to student input and giving them meaningful roles signals that kids are valued co-owners of the learning space. Educators insist this is true across grade levels: In elementary school, Sue Silva’s kids take charge of simple things like “raising the blinds, watering the plants, or straightening up the art supplies”; in Laura Bradley’s middle school design lab, experienced students who are asked to help struggling ones “never say no, and walk back to their seat a little taller”; and you can “give students jobs in the classroom at the high school level so they feel integral to the community,” according to Lisa Marie.

6. Know When to Fold ’Em

It’s taboo in a lot of schools, but it really shouldn’t be. Years ago, when I taught high school English and history, I would sometimes read the room and call it a day five minutes before the period ended. We’d just talk and joke around before the bell sent everyone scurrying. I think we all benefited from that decision—and I think the next day’s lesson went more smoothly.

I’m not alone. Educator Jennifer Crutcher insisted that she is “real” with her students. “Some days I feel the room and know we aren’t going to get as deep into content as I want to, and I tell them that it’s OK.” Another teacher put it a little more colorfully: Sometimes you have to assess everyone’s body language and say “screw the lesson.” Teachers need to be able to exercise that kind of discretion, within reason, without second-guessing from other teachers or the administration.

I caught flak for it way back then—but given the chance, I’d do it again.

Editor’s note: We made minor adjustments to quotes for clarity throughout the text of this article, replacing “them” with “students,” for example. You can visit the original threads here, here, and here.

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