Connecting with students in a meaningful way has never been more important in education. Teachers do well when they keep in mind that every exchange with a student is a relationship-building opportunity, and sharing their true selves can assist with creating a connection. Selecting personal anecdotes to share with students is a fragile dance between opening up and maintaining appropriate boundaries. Finding ways to weave in personal stories may offer an effective instructional tool and a means through which teachers can build trust with students.
Every individual has experiences that shape who they are. As an educator, I maintain the practice of selecting pivotal experiences to share in order to help students understand their own lives. For example, my daughter was adopted from Ethiopia at the age of 2. The adoption process was arduous, involving piles of paperwork, visits to notaries, court appearances, and endless fees. However, enduring through the challenges resulted in one of the most meaningful relationships in my life. My daughter is thriving, and I believe we were meant to be. The lesson? Sometimes, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. Going through the motions and jumping through the hoops can lead to unlimited positive opportunities.
My high school students liken this to earning their diplomas. When I share about this experience, I invariably hear from students about their own journeys, sometimes from faraway places. Other times they share about a challenge they’ve overcome. My openness invites them to open up, which helps me get to know them more deeply and better meet their needs.
Sharing our stories conveys a sense of trust. It shows our students that we believe they’re able to hold our truths and invites them to share their own. Selecting our personal anecdotes with intention can help impart social and emotional learning that we hope to share with students. We model resilience and self-efficacy through our stories. So how might educators practice strategic sharing to improve outcomes for students?
Tips for Implementing Strategic Sharing
Determine your boundaries: When selecting personal information to share, remember that appropriate professional boundaries are a must. Oversharing may make students uncomfortable and may get you into hot water with parents. Topic areas to avoid include details on your medical history, romantic experiences or mishaps, and anything related to religion or politics. Wisdom is necessary to ensure respect for all students and for the unspoken code of ethics we practice as teachers.
Identify common student difficulties: Plan the stories you intend to share based on common difficulties you see among students. Perhaps you have a go-to story to help students manage their mistakes. Maybe there was a time you overcame an academic obstacle. These anecdotes can offer students helpful information from your experiences. Be real, be messy, be human, and students will connect with you more deeply.
Build safety and trust: Establish and uphold the expectation that your classroom is a space of safety and trust. As you share your stories, expect that students will honor the idea that the learning environment is a safe space for sharing. By sharing your experiences, you’re showing your students that you trust them enough to hold space for your stories. This is a beautiful way to invest in the relationship and invite them to trust you in return.
Avoid bias: Consider the information you share carefully in order to root out bias. For example, when sharing about your family, make sure you don’t convey a bias toward any particular family structure, such as the one you may have experienced growing up. Families are diverse, and students must feel valued and celebrated at all times in the classroom. Remove any details that may communicate a bias toward “right” or “wrong.” The intent of sharing isn’t to sway students one way or another, but rather to illustrate positive messages for them to consider.
Invite reciprocal sharing: As you share your stories, invite students to share in return. Student voices are the most important in your classroom, so keep your stories concise enough to allow time for students to reply with their connections. You may also utilize technology to welcome sharing if there isn’t enough time for discussion. For example, after sharing a personal anecdote, I ask students to send me their own stories related to the topic via email or Google Forms. They seem to enjoy this, and we enter into a correspondence that’s entirely designed to build our connection.
Remember, however, that this should be strictly voluntary on the part of the students. Be invitational, but never demand forced openness at the risk of harming relationships more than helping them.
When we share about ourselves, we deepen our connections with students and invite them to share who they are. We create a space where stories matter. Inclusive education sends three key messages to students: “I see you, I like you, and I’m glad you’re here.” When students hear about our authentic selves and have the chance to bring their lives into the learning space, they may feel more engaged in the classroom and in their learning.