5 Ways to Form Authentic Connections with Students

By Mindy Spelius, Former Educator & Academic Designer

McGraw Hill
Inspired Ideas
Published in
6 min readDec 19, 2022


“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

My career in education spans over twenty-five years and has been quite diverse. I started as an elementary teacher and spent several years teaching reading and writing methodologies to pre-service teachers at a local college. I then moved to publishing, where I have spent much of my career. During the early nineties when I taught in the elementary classroom, our focus was not quite as data/standards-driven. Yes, we had standards and curriculum we were expected to follow; but we were able to foster our classroom environment in a way that feels slightly different than today. And yet, maybe it is not?

As a teacher, I felt it incredibly important to understand each student for who they were. I found ways to connect with them on an individual basis. I was known to attend sporting events, dance recitals, and other community events to cheer my students on. These connections are still vital, even as we work to meet standards and drive with data. Here are five ways I connected with my students that you can replicate today:

Connections to Families

In my second year of teaching, our superintendent offered to do home visits with any teacher that reached out. I might have been naïve, but I thought, “What a great thing to do!” Dr. Blaesing and I drove to several homes in Beloit, Wisconsin to meet and greet my upcoming students and their families. The information I gathered from seeing my students in their home environment was amazing. I connected to them in their space before they entered our classroom. I learned things about them…what they were interested in, how they had spent their summer, and more. I connected with parents as partners.

Connections through Writing

In my third year of teaching, we introduced communication journals. At the end of each day, students wrote letters to their families and to me in a spiral notebook. They shared celebrations, struggles, questions, and more. Parents, grandparents, caregivers, and I then responded in writing to the student, sharing information and understanding about what was happening at school, and sometimes outside of school.

A writing workshop in my classroom — more for creative than informational writing — allowed students to connect through the characters and stories they created. I do not think anyone will forget about Cranberry, a bear going through life, that one student featured in story after story. Before long, Cranberry showed up in other students’ stories, too! Sometimes Cranberry shed a light on insecurities students were having. Often, he experienced situations like my students — taking tests, parents fighting, playing baseball. Through the stories, we learned more about each other, our reactions, and feelings, and how to be supportive of individual situations.

Connections to the Community

One project I will never forget is making books about our city. My co-teacher, Dawn, and I purchased disposable cameras and had students take pictures of things around the city that were important to them, to their families, and to the community. After developing all the photos (those days, you did not get to see your photos instantly; we must have had about 250!), we worked together to sort them into categories, such as community buildings, government buildings, parks, homes, churches, restaurants, and more. Then, we reached out to people around the city to come in and speak to our class. I do not think anyone said no! We had people from the trash company, the mayor’s office, a judge, doctors, and business owners come in. Students were assigned to be the greeter, the interviewer, the notetaker, and more.

After gathering the information, students wrote about what they learned, and we started to create our city book. We did not have word processing programs where we could format the page or anything like that. So, this meant printing out and cutting up paragraphs and gluing them onto copy paper next to the photos they went with. When we were done, we printed and bound the book for each student. The connections to their classroom, their lives, and their community were right there in black and white!

Connections through Music

We often used music as a culminating unit activity, to help teach concepts, or just as a moment during the day. While studying bugs, we read about them, did investigations about them, and created a musical performance for our school and families. Using music to learn something just seemed to help it stick! We used music to teach math facts, phonics, and capital cities to reach all students and honestly, just have some fun. Often, Dawn and I would open the door between our classrooms and give each other “the look.” Our third graders needed to get some wiggles out. We let students vote on songs to dance to. I clearly remember Aretha Franklin’s Respect being chosen often. We would all boogie down while blaring that song on our class boombox. Even just a few minutes of dancing got us back on track for the rest of the day.

Connections through Spontaneity

Sometimes the most meaningful connections happened without any planning. We just dropped everything in our classroom to do something because we felt like it. The first snowfall of the year was a moment that we cherished. As soon as those snowflakes started to fall, we bundled up and headed outside to run around and enjoy the moment. Or on a particularly beautiful spring day, you would likely catch our class outside during silent reading — each person in their own book or maybe partner reading, but also soaking up the sun.

My time as a classroom teacher, both elementary and college, was invaluable to me as a person. My most important memories center around connections that were made. They are not about the tests, the grades, or the assignments given. The most important memories are connections to people — students and other teachers, families, and a community that I cherish.

Mindy Spelius is an energetic, thoughtful educator who is dedicated to providing creative, inclusive, and joyful curriculum for teachers and students. Mindy has been working in education for over 30 years. She began her career as a teacher in 1990 in the School District of Beloit in Wisconsin. In her 7 years in public education, Mindy taught in second and third grade and one year in a multi-age classroom. She taught pre-service teachers at Beloit College for eight semesters. Mindy attended Minnesota State University as well as the University of Wisconsin (On Wisconsin!) and holds a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction. Mindy worked as a freelancer for several multimedia educational companies as well as publishers while raising her children. Mindy joined McGraw Hill (full-time) in September 2017. She is the Director of an amazing group of Academic Designers who create K-5 Science programs. Mindy lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband, two college-aged sons, and their dog named Posey.



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