Fostering Connections in the Classroom
Take advantage of the opportunities to connect with students during class.
I stepped into my first high school classroom with zero years of experience. I was terrified, excited, and nervous. I honestly didn’t have any idea of what I was doing those first few days.
I read the traditional first-year teacher text, The First Days of School, which ensured I kept a frown on my face (until at least October) and came prepared with seating charts, class rules, and bell ringers.
As I struggled through the first few weeks of establishing some sort of credibility with teenagers that were literally five years younger than me, I fine-tuned my classroom management skills and developed the “teacher’s look” to help keep rambunctious teens in line.
What I learned in the first few months of teaching is that students can spot emotion, like a dog on a scent. They knew I was nervous, they knew I was new, and they were kind to me anyways.
What I came to appreciate, and what I insist upon now as a more seasoned educator, is that students crave authenticity in the classroom. They respect genuineness and honesty and are even okay when you answer their question with “I don’t know, but let’s find out!”
Now, I enter the classroom with a smile on my face, and the desire to work with my students, not against them. If we create an antagonistic relationship from the outset, then of course the classroom will become a battle of wills. They will wait to see if you will crack and will pounce on any inconsistencies or injustices the moment they happen.
With respect, consistency, and communication, students will willingly go along for the ride in the classroom, and maybe even learn something while they are there.
I have adapted a few approaches to my classroom since those first years of teaching, and thankfully, I have been better for it.
Connect at the Beginning of Class
The standard teacher advice is to promptly start class with a bell ringer or bell work. Students should immediately disengage from peers upon walking in the door, hastily retrieve their supplies, and busily get to work on whatever is posted on the board. No time for nonsense, smiles, or chatting.
I disagree. Students absolutely need a second to decompress after the hallway/locker rush and chaotic peer shuffle. We all need a minute to decompress upon entering a new space and getting settled. Use this time to work the room, catch up with students, and establish a welcoming vibe.
Make the rounds at the start of close to form those all-important relationships with students. Ask about their day, their activities, and their friends. Get to know them. Building relationships is key to a positive classroom culture where students learn best.
Individual or small group conversations can quickly move to classroom work with a classroom cue, such as holding up a hand, ringing a bell, or simply getting started with the lesson. It’s okay to take a few minutes before launching into the curriculum.
Connecting with students is the priority. Without connection, there is no learning.
Encourage Student Interaction
I am not going to pretend that it is overwhelming when thirty students are trying to talk at one time. And it’s uncomfortable for teachers who feel vastly outnumbered by gregarious teenagers. And even more importantly, no one wants the principal to walk in on chaos.
However, learning does not happen without interaction. Learning is disruptive; kids need to move and talk and adjust. They need to feel engaged with their whole beings to truly get the most out of the content.
Establishing procedures for large and small group discussions is important. Students should know when it’s appropriate to call out and when it is time to raise hands. With appropriate connections already built with students, they will know and welcome these boundaries and classroom expectations.
Students love having a voice, and they will respect you for giving it to them.
Especially when they are so often told to sit down and be quiet for hours on end during the school day with limited time to interact with each other or their teachers.
Learning entails asking questions. Create an environment where questions lead to learning, and mistakes lead to success.
Seek feedback during a lesson. Ask them how it’s going. Check-in on their learning. It can feel risky to give students the power to provide feedback on something we should be “experts” on, but the truth is that we have all changed our lesson midstream. Being flexible is par for the course of good teaching.
Incorporate Brain Breaks
Students love to try to steer teachers off-topic. They delight in segueing conversations into weekend plans, favorite football teams, and random thoughts. Sometimes I call them on it and continue. Sometimes I meander down the path of least resistance just to give us all a mental break.
I personally struggle with attention which makes me very empathetic to what my students go through in a class that is an hour and a half long. I won’t deny that I am “that” teacher at the faculty meeting fidgeting in her seat, watching the clock, and trying to keep a straight and interested face.
To prevent too many off-topic tangents, incorporate breaks into the lesson. These breaks foster connections with students, which helps learning overall, and also serves as a mental time-out to let the brain cool before firing up again.
The lesson will continue, students will learn, and all will be well. Plan several breaks a lesson and students will thank you.
Ultimately, students crave connection. They crave independence and want to feel valued and heard. Just like the rest of us. As teachers, we often cite autonomy as one of our main attractions to the profession. We like to do our thing in the classroom and minimize the outside obligations that interfere with our teaching.
Students crave that autonomy as well. Connecting with students, letting them interact during class, and providing them with well-earned breaks create a positive classroom culture that will ultimately result in more learning and happier people.
Jennifer Osborne is an experienced educator with graduate degrees in both Educational Leadership and Guidance and Counseling. She has taught in five different countries and is an advocate for authentic learning for teachers and students.
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