George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

3 Ways to Make Meaningful Connections With Your Students

Edutopia blogger Nick Provenzano believes there's more to teaching than dispensing curriculum, and he shares three practices that lead students and their families to trust him on a personal level.

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.

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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.

Liz's picture
6-8 MYP Science teacher in Düsseldorf, Germany

I do something super simple- when I take attendance aloud (even though after a few weeks, I don't need to), I always give them an attendance question with a very short answer instead of saying "here." It is something like favorite sport, favorite candy, favorite animal, oldest/youngest/middle child, or anything else short and simple, yet personal. EVERY SINGLE DAY kids say, "can I share more than one thing?" because they are so excited about sharing. It is a fast way to make sure I have connected with every single kid at least once in the period. And, sometimes, on Fridays, our question is "What are you doing this weekend?" and we've changed the 'nothing' answer to 'sitting in a blank room and staring at a blank wall' as our class joke. Easy and fun way to make a connection in the FFM!

Evan Wolkenstein's picture
Evan Wolkenstein
magnetiCClassroom: Connection, Creativity, Compassion, Community and teCh

Love this post. The first 5 minutes of class, like the first month of school, sets the tone for the rest. The trick is to walk the line of structure and authenticity.

Matilda Clark's picture

Putting connection up there as a priority and having fun building relationships alongside results. A big 'YAY' from me!

geejustwhy's picture

would this be effective if I'm still on practicum? I also have the feeling that the students might not like it and prefer to do things relevant to the subject immediately.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

geejustwhy, your student teaching/practicum is a perfect time to try it out! There's no real way to know if any one strategy will be "effective" for a particular group of students - the best thing you can do is get to know your particular students and then test out some strategies that will help them learn. Let us know how it goes!

Coach Christopher's picture
Coach Christopher
Curriculum Designer at Courage To Core

It is absolutely true that building connections with students establishes a trust that builds their confidence and empowers their learning. After you've watched their games or spent some extra time helping them after school it is so much easier to get the best out of them in class. It is heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking to see how much kids actually just want the approval of the adults and peers in their lives and they will really go the extra mile to earn it. My math class is oriented towards group work so I frequently get to see all the kids in relatively unfiltered form. It's amazing how a kid who is confused, tired, frustrated or otherwise detached will get completely back in the game if I sit with their group and participate as an equal player. They are still kids, and unlike adults who can endure 100 years of solitude if necessary, they are motivated and maintained by social connection. Nice post!

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