The Power of Connecting with Students

By Sarah Wissman

Sarah Wissman with her children, Luke and Greg.

As a technology teacher (my classes cover internet security, basic computer science, coding, and keyboarding with sixth through eighth graders) I often joke with my students that I learned to type on a typewriter, while most of them have never even seen a typewriter. We have fun with this, but I often wonder: Do my students feel like they have anything in common with me?

As a veteran educator with 18 years in the classroom, I have seen that building strong, personal relationships between teachers and students is critical for students to learn and engage in school. As a member of the Kettering Middle School’s PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports) team, I’m focused on supporting our district’s framework by encouraging teacher-student relationships and creating a positive school environment.

Last year, a colleague told me about the free “Get to Know You” survey, developed by Panorama Education, which is an online tool to help jumpstart teacher-student relationships. It’s a new and innovative way to get to know your students on a more personal level.

Here’s how it works: As a teacher, I fill out a questionnaire about my learning styles and interests outside the classroom. My students answer the same questions and instantly see what they have in common with me. Then, I can log back into the tool to see where my interests match each of my students’ interests. It’s an interesting twist on typical handouts to get to know your students, because the focus is on establishing similarities or connections.

A teacher at Woodridge School District 68 in Illinois greets her students.

At first, I considered the “Get to Know You” survey to be a tool for me to get to know my students. But after using it with over 180 students in my technology classes last fall, I realized it was a powerful lesson for them in what they have in common with me. When they sat down to take the survey, I tricked them a little bit into being invested in the process by saying, “You may be the first person to not have anything in common with me!”

But the questionnaire surfaced something I have in common with each and every one of my students. They all got to see a concrete answer to the question, “How are you and Mrs. Wissman alike?”

After my students saw a few of our similarities, many of them wanted to talk about specific interests we share. Students love knowing that I watch crime shows on TV too, and they’ve started to ask, “Mrs. Wissman, did you see the show that was on last night?”

Several students noted that said I would choose to have our school invest in anti-bullying programs rather than increase teacher salaries, which surprised them, and many said they agree with me. Talking about why we would see value in adding anti-bullying programs to our school created a space for us to connect about our school community in ways we might not have done otherwise.

Middle schoolers aren’t always interested in connecting with adults, but strong relationships with adults will be so important to their success in my classroom, in school and beyond. I think it’s valuable that since we did the survey together, each of my students has an anchor in something we share in common.

I’m using the survey with my students again this year, and I’m excited for the chance for us to get to know each other and start learning.