As a special education teacher, I often have the opportunity to work with students who many of my colleagues find...let's say, difficult to work with. On my worst days I get frustrated by how it often seems that classroom teachers are at a loss when students don't fit their expectations.
Building rapport is hard work. We can't assume that the old "respect me because I am the teacher" model will work for all of our students, or even most of them these days. Perhaps there are communities where this still works very well, but this hasn't been my experience and it's always advantageous to learn through difficult circumstances.
So, how do we build meaningful connections with our students so that they can get the most from their experience with education? Here are my thoughts:
Always Greet Every Student You Pass in the Hall
Depending on your personality and the size of the school you work at, this might seem obvious or ridiculous. Tell you what, I'm going to boldly say that we should ALL say good morning or good afternoon or just plain hello to each and every student we pass in the hall. Why not! If you aren't in a good mood, you'd better fake it! We are here to create a positive, welcoming environment for our students and a pleasant greeting is simply the beginning of this reality.
On that note, even though I just said to "fake it", you really do need to be genuine when you are greeting the students. You really have to wear you teacher hat and be positive (within reason!) from the start of your day to its finish. Behaving this way is a skill and just like any other skill you have to practice it - but you will get better and better at it and, trust me, your relationships with the students will benefit greatly from this approach. It won't hurt to follow this approach with your colleagues too - why not!
Find Something to Like About Every Student You Work With
I think we've all heard a colleague complain about a particular student; if their day was bad enough, we might have even heard them say things that are all too human, but still should have gone unsaid. How do we succeed when we have a student who seems to WANT to make us upset rather than learn?
First off, try to remember that it probably isn't you that they don't like. More often than not the students who are the most difficult to deal with have already been told, year in and year out, that they are not good students, that their behaviour is unacceptable, that their needs won't be met. Obviously they haven't been told any of these things explicitly, but they have learned them implicitly; these ideas have found a home in their heads and have started to contribute to "automatic" thinking.
The only way to combat this thinking is to actually find a redeeming trait. What is it about this person that makes them special and maybe even enjoyable? Forget about mathematics or language or whatever. Find something pleasant about this student - you will find something! Whether it's a sports team they like, their sense of humour, a food they enjoy, a pet they have or a movie they've seen, find something to connect over. Now, just because you've found a common ground, it doesn't mean the student will start behaving perfectly but at least you will have a starting point to begin tearing down those negative thinking patterns.
Understand That School is a "Necessary Evil" for Some Students -- Academics Aren't Everything
I understand that this heading seems off for a blog written by an educator. I take my responsibility to deliver the Ontario curriculum very seriously; I understand that we can't simply avoid it or skimp, however, there is a lot more to teaching than academics.
If we really want to give our students a chance to succeed, we have to make them believe that school is a place worth going to, not a place where they're always in trouble of some sort. We have to do our best to empathize with our students: if academics were your number one focus as a child then you might have a very hard time with this -- but it's up to you to work at understanding where your students are coming from, not up to them to meet the expectations of what your idea of a good student is. Again, if you connect with your students as people, you'll have a much greater chance of having them consistently on board with your teaching, which will give you a real shot at moving them forward academically.
Understand the Community in Which You Work
This is a misunderstood and necessary step to really doing great things in any community. Whether it means looking up government data, consulting with a friend who knows the neighbourhood, meeting with your administrator or just taking some time to pay attention to the students you teach and the community you're in, you have to know where you are to understand how to be effective there!
If you're not empathetic to the lives your students and their families live, you simply cannot connect meaningfully with them. Some knowledge about your neighbourhood will go a long way, whether you're teaching in an area of privilege or an area where most families aren't quite as privileged.
Authenticity is the Key
We're not teaching subjects, we're teaching people. That might be a cliche, but it's a meaningful one. If we are unable to connect with our students, we simply cannot do a great job in teaching them. Perhaps a more distanced approach is effective for some students or at the post-secondary level, but when we are teaching elementary-aged students and high school students as well, the human element is key.
I've always found that genuinely caring about students leads to positive outcomes, for both the students and teachers. We've all heard that teaching has elements of a science and elements of an art embedded within it. Building a rapport definitely falls into the category of an art. Hopefully some of what I've said here can help you to perfect the art of making more meaningful connections with your students - the best learning happens once these deep connections are made.
Honourable mentions for connecting with students: coach a team, lead a club, generate conversation with students on supervision time (yard duty).
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