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Making Connections

Geoff Richman

Head of Upper School Learning Support, International School of Amsterdam
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Woman and girl reading together

My son has a certain joie de vivre. He can transform any collection of items into a drum kit and may break out in Z100 Hot Hits should he feel the urge. One afternoon in early September his teacher sidled up to his table and said to him, "I don’t know for sure if you're going to win a Grammy, but I know that you will certainly be nominated. Don't forget that I was the first one to predict it."

I should mention that he is adjusting to a new state, a new city, and a new school -- changes that would challenge all of us even on the best of days. "Will I make friends? Will I like the school? Will I like my teacher?" Initially, he had a difficult time discerning homework expectations and whether he even wanted to meet them.

Soon after his predicted Grammy, our boy reported that his teacher had given him a nickname. "I was going to get a book, and I don't know why, but I started walking like this." (Elbows out, chest puffed, he strutted like a rooster across the floor.) "My teacher called me Mick. Mick Jagger." His smile in the recounting could have lit up Madison Square Garden. "She’s the nicest teacher I've ever had."

Once he was recognized as one half of the Glimmer Twins, his comportment transformed. Now, after decompressing from the day, and with a snack or two comfortably ensconced in his belly, he breaks out his homework without complaint. He will try to decipher word problems involving division, remember the difference between who enforces laws ("That’s the executive branch.") and who interprets them ("That's jujishal, I mean judicial -- that's a hard word to say!"), and ask questions of his folks when he is unsure about any of it. Each night he is putting forth his best effort. Each morning he proudly submits that work to the teacher who connected with him, who essentially showed him, "I get you."

What the Research Tells Us

From my experience as a student (waaaay back in the day), a teacher, and a dad, I believe strongly that making connections with kids is the foundation upon which all learning is laid. My data in this area has been purely anecdotal and qualitative, not to mention that my parental sample size of exactly two is relatively small. However, others have conducted more extensive research about this dynamic. Christi and David Bergin concluded in Attachment in the Classroom (PDF, 452KB), their 2009 study that examined the impact of relationships and teaching:

Evidence suggests that secure teacher-student relationships predict greater knowledge, higher test scores, greater academic motivation, and fewer retentions or special education referrals than insecure teacher-student relationships. (p.154)

Around the same time, Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley focused specifically on boys and their relationships with teachers. Their research from six countries revealed that specific components of teacher actions in relation to their students can prove very beneficial, including maintaining admirable standards, reaching out (to meet a student's needs), and responding to a student's personal interest or talent (Reichert and Hawley, Kappan, 2013, pp. 50-51). Charlotte Jacobs, Peter Kuriloff, et al referenced this research as they examined the effects of student-teacher relationships with girls. They found that girls, too, are "relational learners," and that they derive benefits from their peers as well as teachers (Jacobs, Kuriloff, Andrus, and Cox, Kappan, 2014, p.69).

In Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, John Hattie and Gregory Yates consider positive teacher relationships crucial to both student learning and the growth mindset:

Learning requires considerable investment. It requires confidence that we can learn, it requires an openness to new experiences and thinking, and it requires understanding that we might be wrong, we may make errors, and we will need feedback. Learning for many students is a risky business. The positive teacher-student relationship is thus important not so much because this is worthwhile in itself, but because it helps build the trust to make mistakes, to ask for help, to build confidence to try again, and for students to know they will not look silly when they don't get it [the] first time. (p.21)

Forming Bonds

Make a connection. I would suggest that you do this not through a beginning-of-the-school-year interest survey, but through conversation. Sharing is a simple yet elegant entry into children's lives and -- don't overlook this -- doing so allows children into yours, too. Everyone can share about what we did over the weekend, or what we're looking forward to this weekend, or both. Who likes scary movies? Who's reading fantasy novels and who's playing fantasy football? Who had a baseball game and who had a piano recital? Who loves to draw -- and who else does, too?

As whole-class discussions provide an abundance of junctions where folks can meet, one-on-one conversations let us mine deeper veins of communication that may lead to even greater trust. Understanding where a child comes from, how they are feeling, what inspires them, and what bums them out, these connections form bonds strong enough to allow kids to try genuinely putting themselves out there to succeed and to fail, because they know that you will ultimately be there to catch them should they fall and to fist bump them when they rise.

One more recommendation: Have fun. Play games. Laugh at yourself, because everyone will recognize that you are not some pedestal-residing, self-serious automaton -- rather, you are human, you enjoy what you do, and you absolutely enjoy everyone in your classroom.

When we make connections large and small with our students, when we consciously build trust, we improve learning opportunities for everyone. And coming to school is just plain fantastic.

How do you connect with your students? Please share in the comments section below.

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Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Teachers sometimes spend infinite amounts of time talking about students to their colleagues or to students' parents but minimal time actually talking to students themselves. I engage in conversations with students to learn from them and about them. In language arts I assign assignments that include journal writing or essay writing about themselves. In social studies I give family history projects. I am not always at the centre of discussion but allow my students to share events and experiences from home. I allow them to share whatever information they feel comfortable discussing.

Geoff Richman's picture
Geoff Richman
Head of Upper School Learning Support, International School of Amsterdam

I was speaking with a friend today who expressed his concern with teachers who don't have "it" and therefore may not be so inclined to make connections. Like you, I suggested that perhaps through assignments that allow kids an opportunity to share their lives that the first buttons of connection can be snapped together. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Truly music to a parent's ears when you hear your child comment on how someone took a minute to truly care about THEM. Our children spend a good 6 hours or more at school, for around 180 days out of the year. There are plenty of little moments to connect with each student in some way...and as you shared, it can be something simple (I'd say little...but, in no way is it little to that person) that makes all the difference.

I also love that the teacher could have handled the "drumming" in a variety of ways. This would have been a great example for a session I sat in this weekend on "using positive micro-messaging to inspire perseverance." We need to consider how and what we say (and also the surrounding circumstances), before we speak (or write).

Geoff Richman's picture
Geoff Richman
Head of Upper School Learning Support, International School of Amsterdam

"There are plenty of little moments to connect," indeed. And we can use those bountiful opportunities to create that positive micro-messaging to which yo u refer. My boy's teacher honored his energy and, in return, she enjoys a student who is more willing to try his hardest in her class.
I wonder if, as teachers, we should consider every interaction a chance to make a connection because we just never know when we might break through or tap in.

Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Every interaction IS a chance to make a matter where we are, or what our role/title is.

Peter Wilson's picture

Hi everyone,

This is right on. In fact, the first half of my new book, Mumbo Jumbo & Banana Peppers, is all about making connections. Here's an exerpt:
When I decided to get into teaching, I wanted to do it as much with my heart as with my intellect....What do I mean by heart? It's hard to explain and putting words to the concept is like trying to describe love or beauty. By "heart," I mean teaching with concern, a certain priority toward relationships, giving it all you've got and teaching from the greatest part of you. Simply, you care. You could go through the motions, just teach content, learn names, discipline students, grade papers or tests and be a distant teacher. But I'm sure you've heard about students who loved teachers who had that "something" that made their teaching, and the learning, special. Was that "something" just content knowledge to pass on, or some fun lessons? It was probably both of those, plus a lot more. Think back on the teachers you had. Did your favorites have heart? I bet they did, in some form.
The biggest part of teaching is connecting with kids on a level that puts them at ease with whomever they are at the time. And letting them know it's okay to be anxious; it's okay to not know how to do something. In a quote attributed to him, Theodore Roosevelt said, "People don't care what you know, until they know that you care." ...I don't put my heart into teaching for the purpose of receiving gratitude or compliments from students, parents, other teachers or administrators. Those are great to receive, but effective teachers just operate this way. They put something into their teaching that is untouchable by compliments, criticism, administration or the future. They know that no matter what they may be feeling or going through personally or professionally, putting their heart into the connections with their students and their learning is the only way to teach....Kids need to know we believe in them. I love it when a student tells me, "This is too easy," months after they were saying,
"I don't get it" or, "I can't do it." My students learn to trust me enough that, even if they feel confused in the moment, they will "get it." This does not happen by accident. It happens partly because of the way I tell them things will come to them, and about the small steps to getting there, but also because they sense it in the way things operate in the room....Sharing stories is a very warm way to connect and share ideas that may not be in the "normal" school curriculum, but may be just as important. I share many experiences with students. I never try to sway students one way or another politically or religiously, or tell them too much about family or relationship issues. But that doesn't mean I cannot share stories from my own life. They love to tell their own stories and also like to hear them from others. This sharing of stories builds trust by showing how human we all are; most of us can relate to stories in one way or another. Stories open up new avenues for learning, connecting and sharing heart in a classroom. Some stories tug at our hearts, while others may be more lighthearted. Both bring people closer together.

Check out the new book on Amazon. Or visit my website.

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