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Making School About Connection

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Traditionally, schools have not promoted human-centered relationships. With the exception of the primary years, students are expected to rush from class to class, searching for meaning in short periods of time allotted with each of their teachers. In this model, each course is meant to pack in as much content as possible while pausing only for exams which are supposed to determine how much a student "knows."

In the real world, meaning comes from relationships, from feelings of belonging, and from work that allows for exploration, self-expression, and self-examination. No one looking back on his or her school experience remembers a particularly poignant test. Instead, people remember the teacher who reached out to them at a vulnerable moment, the unit that changed the way they understand an issue, or the project that seemed impossible at first but then became something far beyond everyone's expectations.

Teaching and learning are incredibly complex and impossible to script. What we can do is commit ourselves to practices and structures that value our students as people with real human needs. By working to meet these needs and working to make schools more people-centered, we help transform potential experiences of alienation and disconnection into joyful examples of supportive community where young people can explore, take risks, and discover themselves.

There are many small and large ways for teachers to build deeper connections with students. Below are a few suggestions of approaches that have worked for me.

1. Check In With Students

The small moments before or after classes, during lunches, in the hallways, and at activity times are all opportunities for small conversations with students. Warm, genuine greetings and attempts to connect can have a large impact. At other times, teachers can take a moment to ask a student about a sick grandmother or find out if someone is still struggling with work that frustrated him or he the day before.

2. Create a Classroom of Respect

Classrooms based on a foundation of respect encourage people to be kind and the best versions of themselves. These behaviors happen because they are the right thing to do in a community that values people, not because an authority figure demands it. Work to establish a tone of shared respect where issues are dealt with through conversation and where the entire group feels invested in maintaining a positive classroom culture.

3. Be Present

Teachers' days are filled with interruptions. It is not always easy to abandon a large pile of work and listen deeply to a student who comes in during an unscheduled time. Yet moments like these are often the times when real connections are made and when people develop deeper, authentic understandings and relationships.

4. Host the Party

In the same way that party hosts should welcome and situate their guests, teachers should maintain an awareness of the experience of everyone in their classroom. Are people being excluded? Are there negative dynamics or interactions between certain students? What can be done to bring more students into the mainstream and alleviate feelings of marginalization?

5. Respond to Student Work With Kindness and Validation

Human-centered environments help people grow. Feedback for student work is an opportunity to validate effort and success while encouraging learners to grow and strengthen their skills. If the first message that students get about their work is what is wrong or how it is deficient, they are less likely to invest themselves in revision, and less likely to work hard in the future. If students hear what is interesting, special, or unique about their work, they will more likely be open to suggestions for improvement.

6. Make It Fun

Being in community is a joyful and challenging experience. Create rituals that help everyone laugh and be willing to pause the action to appreciate each other. Congratulate a class when they complete a large project. If there are two extra minutes at the end of class, let a student tell a joke to the group. Try ending each week by having a different student sing the class a song. Also, laugh at yourself -- it's the best way to break down barriers and share your own humanity.

Teaching is wonderful because it involves people. As much as I plan, I can never foresee the rewarding and challenging moments that will fill each day. By recognizing students as people and working to create schools and classrooms that value the human experience, we can create spaces for possibility and deeper meaning for students, for people, and for ourselves.

The six suggestions I've listed above are by no means the last word in humanizing the school experience. Please add your own ideas in the comments below.

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


I don't know how it happens even though it happens all the time but I'll be sitting at my desk in the front or at my desk in the back all alone late in the afternoon and all of a sudden I'll look over to my left or to my right and there's Clark. Standing there smiling.

Clark the seventh grader who says he can't wait for Georgia history next year. Clark has a famous and historic relative. Historic in Georgia, that is. So historic the man is written about in our textbook. There's a picture of him in there, too.

Clark wanted me to tell everyone that he's not his ancestor ... that he's Clark and his ancestor is a totally different human being. That everybody's driving him crazy saying he's famous. He's not famous. His ancestor is famous. Okay?

I said okay, Clark ... no problemo ... I've got your back on that ... and then I asked him has he ever seen the part of the textbook concerning his famous relative and his picture?


I grabbed the textbook and opened it up. I showed Clark the picture of the famous man he's related to.

Clark made a small noise in his throat, as if he was suddenly moved.

I think he was. That's him, I said. You look just like him...or he looks just like you.

I don't think so, Clark said.

You look alike. It's easy to see.

Finally, Clark said...We do sort of look alike.

I told him ... You're both smiling. You ... are always smiling and that's much appreciated. You have a famous smile, too.

Clark reached down and touched the picture. Clark pulled his hand back and he said ... I just touched history, didn't I?

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Thanks for sharing this story about connecting with a student!

jgilbert's picture

We have too many students in elementary school that grow up to fast due to circumstances at home. We have to remember that they are still children and need to be treated as students. They have to be motivated and pushed; they have to be given the chance to learn and it has to be fun or else why do it in the first place. At my school, we have new administration that is really pushing us to be more positive and it is amazing to see the change in the climate of the school in just a few months. These students are now here wanting to learn and grow because the culture in the school has changed for the better. I can't wait to see what the rest of year brings!

AM Vogt's picture

Thank you so much for your thoughts! I completely agree with you - we need to work on building relationships with our students. You gave some wonderful examples of ways in which we can work towards strengthening these relationships. I have seen myself how this can change the climate in a classroom. We are all so very busy trying to keep up with daily lesson preps and daily grading - yet, sometimes, those small moments of connection with our students are infinitely more important than anything else that we could be doing. We need to seize any opportunity that we have. I do try to build every student up whenever possible, and it works!

Recently, one of my middle school students - who has a very troubled home life, and a history of past behavior issues - noticed that the podium in my classroom was wiggly and missing some screws. Several days later, he pulled some screws out of his pocket and said that he had searched for the proper size screw so that he could fix it for me - which he did. What a kind and thoughtful gesture! I was so impressed with him - and told him so emphatically. I love my middle school students... and, in my opinion, they are the most rewarding to teach.

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