A Focused Practice for Relationship Building
To connect with all of his students, a teacher reflects intently on five of them each day and makes a point of engaging them.
While chugging homemade iced espresso during my morning commute about a year and a half ago, I became conscious that past conversations with students were crackling in and out of my thoughts like Pop Rocks. I experience these reflections randomly and often, and I believe they give me insight about students. But could these meandering reflections be improved?
My off-duty reflections are occupied disproportionately with outliers: the most defiant learners, and kids who revere me. Wouldn’t more students benefit if the approach were less haphazard and unconscious? I decided to experiment with being deliberate and intensive in thinking about my students.
As I waited in my car for a traffic light to change, I decided that for five minutes, I would think about everything significant that I had observed that semester about Conner, a kid in my afternoon class. This first attempt at deliberate reflection gave me considerable insight about a student—insight that led me to start a conversation with him later that day at school.
“I don’t hear you talking about skateboard competitions anymore,” I said. “Do you still ride that Cloud Nine, or are you marshaling all that raw, kinetic energy towards other challenges?” Conner’s eyes lit up as he explained that he’d transformed himself with a group of friends into a parkour maniac. As proof, he ran up my wall and backflipped onto his feet. I asked him to stop, but not before he caught my awed expression.
That encounter was so rich and fun that I decided to operationalize five-minute deliberations on five students every morning during my ride to the gym and then to campus. I now refer to this reflection practice as 5x5 assessment time.
How 5x5 Assessment Works
If you try this, don’t expect it to go perfectly at first. As with mindfulness, you’ll get better with consistent practice.
1. Choose five students to deliberate upon: Pick a time in the morning when you have 25 minutes to think without being too distracted. I keep a list of all 75 students from my four classes in the passenger seat of my sedan and randomly choose five names to think about. After the 5x5 deliberation is over, I cross off the names. The next day, I select five new kids to contemplate.
I still think about all of my students throughout the day, but checking off names ensures that each of my learners receives 300 seconds of dedicated think time at least once a month.
2. Think holistically about the five students: Next, I set my timer app for five minutes and try to answer the following questions for one of the five selected kids:
- What have I noticed about the student recently?
- What behavior patterns have I observed?
- What outside affinities, struggles, values, and goals have been revealed?
- What part of the student’s life am I most curious about? What question might spark an answer to help me satisfy that curiosity?
While answering those questions in my head, I try to reflect on potential warning signs. For instance, discolored teeth, eroded gums, and negative preoccupation with body appearance might indicate that a teenager struggles with bulimia.
I also monitor my emotions. Feeling neutral or negative about a student is a cue that I’m overwhelmed or irritated, or that I haven’t paid enough attention to the student to build a proper connection. Warmly anticipating how I will greet the kid when he or she enters my room indicates that my emotions are suitably primed.
I follow this process for each of the five students. If I can develop a theory about what each of the five kids’ needs are and a strategy to engage in a conversation with them, I consider the 5x5 assessment session a success.
3. Interact with the focus students the same day: Later at school, I start conversations with the focus students by identifying what I’ve noticed and asking a question I care about. This can happen in the hall, or in class while I’m passing out papers—whenever it seems natural to do it. For instance: “Mike, a couple days ago you were talking about your dad’s new job. How will that change things for you and your family?”
Many years ago, elementary school librarian Blanche Caffiere pulled Bill Gates out of his shell when she noticed that the sixth grader was reading a Tom Swift Jr. book and recognized that the future founder of Microsoft could handle more complex literature than that. According to Gates, Ms. Caffiere presented him with more challenging texts and took the time to discuss them: “‘Did you like it?’ she would ask. ‘Why? What did you learn?’ She genuinely listened to what I had to say. Through those book conversations in the library and in the classroom we became good friends.”
Avoid forcing a conversation when your attention is scattered or when kids don’t appear open to a personal chat with you. You can always talk later—just look for the right opportunity.
Reflecting on your insights about your students with the 5x5 assessment each morning will build your capacity to notice, understand, and connect with them—competencies exhibited by transformational teachers that fortunately improve with practice.