Getting to know your students, what makes them tick, understanding their strengths and supporting their areas of growth is the most important thing a teacher can do in the beginning of the year.
Rita Pierson talks about how every kid needs a champion in her viral TED talk, stating “You won't like them all, and the tough ones show up for a reason. It's the connection. It's the relationships. So teachers become great actors and great actresses, and we come to work when we don't feel like it, and we're listening to policy that doesn't make sense, and we teach anyway. We teach anyway, because that's what we do.”
I’ve never heard a more true statement. The relationship between you and your students is what keeps them showing up every day, it’s what keeps them motivated, and it’s what they take away from that school year. Children hardly remember what you’ve taught them, but they will never forget how you made them feel. So, how do you do this? It’s a balance.
Step One: Check Your Bias at the Door
Everyone has biases, it’s what makes us human. We use our experiences, our understandings, and our observations to make assumptions. It’s our brain’s way of attempting to categorize people, places and things in order to organize and understand the world around us. However, our job as teachers is to challenge those biases every day, check ourselves and walk in with an open mind. This is active work!
When you feel yourself making an assumption about a student or their ability, pause. Check yourself and ask “Why am I making this assumption?”. Challenge your brain to give that child a clean slate every single day. Every day is a new day in your classroom. You can hold students accountable for their actions without holding a grudge or forming a permanent bias.
When a negative thought or assumption pops into your head, pause. Find 5 things you like about that student and recite them in your head. Pick one thing to share with that student. Thank them for coming to class, tell them you’re happy to see them. Find the positive and live in it.
Step Two: Share Information About Yourself
Students love to learn about their teacher. Younger students really think you live and sleep at the school, so showing them you’re a real human that has a family and goes grocery shopping and sees movies in the theatre helps them bond with you in an authentic way. Share your interests with your students. You can do this in many ways.
Hang up things in your classroom that represent you. Hang your college pennant, your favorite movie poster, pictures of your children, significant other, friends and family. Post your favorite quotes. Print out pictures of your favorite book covers or movie characters. Your classroom is an expression of you as a person just as much as it is of you as a teacher. If you don’t have a classroom because you travel, decorate your cart, clipboard, laptop of binder.
Keep it balanced. Only share things you feel comfortable having students share with their parents or their peers, because they will! There is definitely power in being vulnerable with your students about your experiences, especially in an effort to help them understand they are not alone in their experiences. Just be prepared to defend your decisions should anyone question them, and be prepared to be asked by another student because kids love to share!
Step Three: Learn About Your Students
Encourage students to share their likes and dislikes. Ask them lots of questions and listen actively to what they say. Take notes on students remarks so you can follow up with questions or thoughts later on in the year. For example, you hear a student mention they love Marvel characters. Great! When the new Marvel movie comes out, ask them if they are going to go see it. If you see a Marvel character t-shirt or stickers, take a picture of it and show it to them the next day in class. Say “I thought of you immediately when I saw this!”.
Find your students strengths, and spend time building upon them. If you see that a student is always on time, praise them for this small action. If students are social butterflies, help them build this strength rather than seeing it as an annoyance or something to fix. Always find something positive to say to students.
If you need to give them critical feedback, use the “complement sandwich”. For example, “Lauren, I’m so excited that you are making friends so quickly and that you have so much to share with your peers. Let’s focus on our task at hand for the next 15 minutes until lunch, when you can share again about your movie date this weekend. Thank you so much for pausing your conversation! I’m looking forward to hearing more before we head to lunch.” or “Henry, I noticed how much you’re improving your writing! You’ve been able to go from writing one paragraph to consistently writing three! Next I’d like to you focus on making sure your sentences always start with a capital letter and end with a period. Awesome job with those descriptive words! I’m excited to read more about your story.”
Step Four: Plan Time for Fun and Games
Learning isn’t just a sit and get experience. Plan in times for fun and games! These can be really quick getting to know you activities or they can be lesson based review games. Social Emotional Learning is just as important (if not more important) as content based learning.
Plan immersive experiences such as videos or games that allow students to step into the shoes of the character or person in history they are learning about.
Plan engaging content! Focus in on what motivates your students and use that information to help them learn new content. For example, if your students are obsessed with Dinosaurs, use dinosaur themed content to teach them new reading or math skills. Plan a thematic unit on geology and the dinosaur era.
You can do this, teachers! Building relationships with students in the beginning of the year and working to maintain those relationships throughout the school year is an investment in a stress-free year. Those relationships will help you motivate your students to do difficult things and will help them continue to feel safe taking risks in your classroom.